News Analysis

Sen. Brian Dorgan (R-N.D.) had high hopes for the passage of his amendment to an appropriations bill that would have cut funding for the Treasury Department’s enforcement of the Cuba travel ban. Supporters of the democratic right of U.S. citizens to travel to the island were also optimistic about the amendment’s chances.

But at the 11th hour, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) attached a “second degree amendment” related to the issue of parental consent for abortions. The sensitivity of that issue threatened to distract senators from voting on the merits of Dorgan’s proposal, and he withdrew it on Oct. 20. He condemned Ensign’s maneuver as anti-democratic and arbitrary.

Most senators apparently agree on the cruelty of recently tightened Bush restrictions on visits by Cuban Americans to relatives in Cuba. A 69-page report released on Oct. 19 by Human Rights Watch–Americas Branch (HRW) concurs. It criticizes recent Bush policies that limit trips by Cuban Americans to visits with parents, grandparents or children, and then only with special permission and only every third year.

The HRW report demands that Washington eliminate all restrictions on Cuban American travel to Cuba and recommends that in the meantime humanitarian exceptions be allowed. In fact, it condemns the embargo in its entirety. The report contains no reference, however, to travel as a human right or for purposes of scientific interchange, academic pursuits, cultural enrichment or just plain pleasure. Nor does it touch upon the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA).

The CAA, passed in 1966, encourages any Cuban who sets foot on U.S. soil to stay, regardless of how he or she arrives. It provides the person with an instant work permit and, within two years (now one year), permanent residence. In contrast, undocumented immigrants from other countries face an uphill, almost impossible struggle for asylum.

From the Cuban point of view, the enticements to Cubans contained in the CAA bear responsibility for much death and mayhem off the Florida coast, and encourage the smuggling of human beings, often with tragic consequences.

A report Oct. 15 from the British newspaper The Guardian is illustrative.

A U.S. Coast Guard vessel apparently stopped a speedboat loaded with people. The boat overturned and a 6-year-old boy drowned. The adults, Cubans headed for the United States, were taken into custody and then returned to Cuba. A smuggler in human beings, based in Florida, had been operating the boat.

Or take another incident, this one on Aug. 30, where 31 people died when a smuggler’s boat capsized off the coast of Matanzas province, Cuba.

Such smuggling, while dangerous for the passengers, is extremely profitable, with boat owners charging $8,000 to $15,000 dollars per person to take them across the Florida Straits.

The Cuban government says the CAA’s effect is to reward illegal migration. To cut down on the illegal and dangerous crossings, U.S. and Cuban negotiators agreed in 1994 that the U.S. government would permit 20,000 Cuban citizens to immigrate legally every year. The U.S. promised to return to Cuba people who arrived by irregular means. But Washington has fallen short of the agreement on both counts.

Florida’s human smuggling industry is growing. As of Sept. 30, the U.S. Coast Guard had intercepted and repatriated 2,712 Cubans, up from 1,225 during the previous 12 months. But 2,530 Cubans made it into the United States, up from 954 in 2004.

The HRW report, in the spirit of “evenhandedness,” also criticizes Cuba. (For all its positive work, HRW has too often been willing to conform to the exigencies of U.S. foreign policy, particularly when it comes to criticizing Cuba.) The report specifically focuses on Cuba’s five-year prohibition on return to the island by those who leave it illegally, and on its refusal to allow some highly trained workers, particularly physicians and scientists, to leave the island permanently.

The impact of the U.S. blockade on travel to and from Cuba has consequences that are both cruel and dangerous. Caught up in all but a war, Cuba too sometimes resorts to harsh measures, but the effects are less random and less wrenching than those of U.S. policies.