Abolish Travel Controls on Cuba

IN broadening controls that prevent the travel of most American citizens to Cuba, the Clinton administration has made a wrong turn. It says it wants to expand communications with the Cuban people and open the island to new ideas. Yet its policies seem designed to accomplish the exact opposite. It is wrong and it is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court ruled almost 30 years ago that the government could not prohibit Americans from traveling to designated countries. So in 1982 the Reagan administration said, "We can't tell you that you can't travel to Cuba, but we can tell you that you can't spend any money to do so."

It imposed currency controls that effectively blocked most Americans from traveling. True, in 1984 the Supreme Court narrowly upheld the constitutionality of these new controls. The Department of State's entire case, however, was based on national-security concerns, as was the high court's decision. In effect, the court ruled that, given the ongoing cold war, national security needs had to override the rights of citizens to travel.

But the cold war is over. National security arguments are no longer there to override the rights of US citizens. The United States still has objectives in Cuba: Principally, it wishes to see the island adopt a more open economy and political system. That is not sufficient cause, however, to continue to prevent the travel of US citizens. Nor does preventing travel serve the objective: Rather, as Cuba's religious leaders and many human rights activists point out, the more Americans in the streets of Cuban cities, the better for the cause of a more-open society. And as Medea Benjamin of the San Francisco-based Global Exchange has said: "It's hypocritical to claim to promote human and democratic rights abroad by trampling on them here at home."

For a variety of reasons, one would have expected the Clinton administration to lift all controls early on. Instead, on Aug. 20, 1994, it tightened them. This came in the midst of last summer's refugee crisis: The administration said it was taking the new measures to pressure President Fidel Castro to halt the flow of rafters and enter into an agreement to normalize immigration. On Sept. 9, 1994, Castro did that. Inexplicably, however, the new restrictions were not removed. They remain on the books even today, a year after that agreement was signed and four months after still another agreement, on May 2 of this year, under which Cuban rafters are returned to Cuba.

What is the nature of these restrictions? Until August 1994, professors and other professional researchers were allowed to travel rather freely to Cuba under a general license. So were journalists and Cuban-Americans visiting families there. On Aug. 20, that general license was rescinded. Henceforth, professors would have to seek Treasury Department licenses before they could travel. Cuban-Americans could not travel at all, except in the case of overwhelming humanitarian need such as a death in the family. And only "full time" journalists could travel.

This goes beyond unconstitutional. Preventing professors from traveling freely to conduct research is a clear violation of academic freedoms. Refusing to allow Cuban-Americans to visit their families on the island is inhumane, illegal, and arbitrary. And the First Amendment says nothing about "full time journalists."

It is time to put a stop to all this. These restrictions serve no foreign-policy needs. They are counterproductive; even more, they are illegal. Are the rights of American citizens to be upheld or are they not?

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