With the Florida Republican primaries just concluded, I reflect with dismay yet no surprise at the “silly season” antics of presidential candidates, Mitt Romney  and Newt Gingrich . They played to the Cuban-American crowd with calls for a hard-line approach to dealing with the Castro government.
Gingrich called for a much tougher approach (Bush redux!) to bring about a “Cuban spring” and said that President Obama  was going about Cuban policy “almost exactly the opposite” of what it should be.
Meanwhile, arch-right-wing Cuban-American U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen , Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is leading an effort to rescind the Obama administration’s “people-to-people” travel licenses, which permit any U.S. citizen to visit Cuba  on licensed educational-focused travel programs that put participants in direct contact with Cubans to “encourage the free flow of ideas, and support civil society.”
On January 10, Ros-Lehtinen “went off the deep end about commercial trips” and had this to say about the people-to-people programs…
1) “These romanticized trips to the oppressed island are portrayed as an opportunity for ‘people to people’ interaction. In reality, the travelers will interact only with people who are either working for the Cuban regime, or who are coerced into giving the party line to foreign tourists and other visitors, or face grave consequences.”
Ros-Lehtinen specifically calls out National Geographic Expeditions , for which I act as the principal resident expert on Cuba, leading their trips. Contrary to Ros-Lehtinen’s accusations, NGE’s January 21-30 educational exchange program included not least:
• Lunch and dinner at paladares, or privately owned restaurants in the growing self-employed sector that you would imagine Ros-Lehtinen would wish to support
• Meetings with all manner of musicians, from restaurant troubadors to the Cantores de Cienfuegos chorale choir
• Meetings with practitioners of the santería religion
• Encounters with self-employed artists, such as Lester Campa  and José Fuster 
• Freedom to wander the streets at will outside the hours of the formally structured educational exchange program… a chance to meet and talk with Cubans from all walks of life, including those highly critical of the Castro government, as well as its supporters.
2) Ros-Lehtinen went on: “All the while, the dictatorship is laughing all the way to the bank as it replenishes its coffers with tourist money.”
As noted above, many of the people-to-people encounters provide direct support to the emerging private sector, rather than to state enterprises. Examples include purchases of paintings and other works of art (as allowed by U.S. law) from self-employed artists.
And as John McAuliff rightly notes in his thoughtful piece, “How Obama Can Truly Open Cuba to Travelers” , for the Huffington Post: “The hard liners' argument that travel provides economic support for Cuba's ‘evil regime’ is nonsensical and disingenuous.... Were their objections actually based on principle, they would similarly oppose travel to China, Vietnam, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and many other countries.”
Meanwhile, Cuba doesn’t need U.S. travelers. Last year it received 2.9 million foreign visitors from the rest of the world. By cutting off people-to-people travel, the hard-liners like Ros-Lehtinen are only cutting off U.S. citizens noses to spite their face.
3) Ros-Lehtinen’s effort to return to the Bush-era restrictions banning travel to Cuba is based on the hypocritical argument that “with gushing write-ups coming from the U.S., the Cuban propaganda machine can take a day off”. If she has her way, U.S. citizens will only get her extreme and one-sided portrayal of Cuban reality.
What an insult to the intelligence of those U.S. citizens who wish to affirm their constitutional right to unrestricted travel so that they can determine reality for themselves.
As McAuliff adds, Obama should go further than this tentative people-to-people provision: “The President could use his authority to give all people to people travelers a general license. Their ability to rent cars, pick up omnipresent hitchhikers, use public buses and trains, and stay in casas particulares (bed and breakfasts) will foster greater spontaneous engagement with Cubans than is afforded by the group tours currently required by OFAC  and available only through Cuban government sanctioned ground operators.”
Meanwhile, here’s another excellent and thoughtful piece  on the subject by John McAuliff.
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