Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Step Closer to Havana

A bill that would lift a lot of the travel restrictions and the tourism ban on Cuba is slowly making its way through Congress.

The bill is being pushed by business and agriculture groups that have long argued that the Cold War-era sanctions against Cuba should be lifted, but it is opposed by an influential anti-communist lobby, which is against Cuba’s ruling Castro family.

But at a time when the Obama administration is fighting to boost U.S. exports, supporters of the bill argue that they have their best chance yet to reopen a country famous for its white sand and hand-rolled cigars, featured in American pop culture from “I Love Lucy” to the “Godfather” films.

The sanctions have been in place since 1959, when communist leader Fidel Castro took over the country and nationalized the holdings of U.S. investors, and they became entrenched in U.S. foreign policy three years later, when Castro tried to import Soviet nuclear weapons.

A bill approved by the House Agriculture Committee last week would repeal a broad travel ban on Americans visiting the island — leaving the broader sanctions in place but taking a major step toward weakening them. It also would loosen rules that allow food sales to the country.

Such efforts have come before, and there is no guarantee of success this time. The bill narrowly passed the Agriculture Committee, 25 to 20, and must clear the House Financial Services Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee before a floor vote is possible.

The opposition to the bill will come from the usual suspects; the hardliners here in Miami who think that the Castro brothers are going to break any day now. They’ve been saying that since 1959 and we’re still waiting. As a matter of fact, the dictatorship in Cuba has used the embargo to cement their grip on power. It gives them their excuse to continue their cruel austerity measures and clamp down on human rights; it’s all because of the evil Yanqui imperialists to the north. The longer the embargo lasts, the longer the Castros have their justification to stay in power.

But just imagine what would happen if all of a sudden planeloads of American tourists started showing up at the beaches and the hotels and the restaurants, wandering the streets of Havana or the smaller towns or going out to Hemingway’s farm. Today the Cuban minders can keep an eye on the occasional American visitor with the special visa or the Cuban-American returning to visit Tia Conchita and treating each of them as a potential spy or mischief-maker. But they would be overwhelmed by hundreds of tourists flooding in with cameras and laptops and iPods and cash. There’s no way the Cubans could control all of them and prevent them from infecting the average Cuban with capitalism and Lady Gaga. The worst threat to the Cuban regime isn’t the stealthy James Bond-type spy sneaking in on a visa cooked up by the CIA; it’s Fred and Ethel from Bloomington, Indiana, with their Margaritaville shirts and Visa cards.