Why Ending the U.S. Embargo and Travel Ban on Cuba Matters

May 03, 2016

By Hanan Saab

As relations between the United States and Cuba continue to thaw and meaningful ties between both countries are strengthened, many believe that we’re on a glide path to full normalization. In less than two years, the Obama administration has issued five rounds of regulatory changes to ease travel and trade with Cuba. Embassies have reopened in each country. Cuba has been removed from the United States’ list of state sponsors of terrorism. Bipartisan congressional delegations, business leaders, and even the president, have visited the island in hopes of further cementing normalization.

Proponents of education diplomacy are commended on a job well done. Ten years of continued advocacy by NAFSA, our partners, and the larger coalition advocating for normalized relations with Cuba, paid off. We in the field of international education got everything we could possibly want, right?

Not quite. Not yet.

While President Obama’s administrative measures and bold leadership have heralded a new era of U.S.-Cuba relations, long-term, meaningful ties will only be sustained by changing existing laws, which requires action from the U.S. Congress. Despite the progress of the past two years, the 50-year-old U.S. embargo on Cuba remains law and makes facilitating meaningful educational exchanges unnecessarily difficult. Though the president has relaxed restrictions, he can only do so within the bounds of current law. Should the next president have differing views on U.S.-Cuba engagement, he or she can still undo all of the progress that’s been made to date.

If we are to fully and effectively engage with our neighbor a mere 90 miles from our shore, Congress must pass bills codifying the president’s efforts to permanently lift the remaining travel and trade restrictions with Cuba.

Congressional action to end the U.S. embargo on Cuba is important to those of us in the field of international education for a number of reasons:

1. The embargo and travel ban create a chilling effect on our work

Beyond perpetuating misunderstanding and mistrust, on a practical level, the embargo hinders meaningful collaborations. Investors, U.S. companies expanding their reach into Cuba, and the banks facilitating their financial transactions have all been cautious for fear of violating sanctions, thus hampering infrastructure development and constraining students’ day-to-day activities. The general ambiguity of the regulatory guidelines coupled with uncertainty of the next U.S. presidential administration only adds to the reluctance to break into the Cuban market. To fast-track normalization, U.S. enterprise needs assurances that the momentum of the Obama administration won’t be thwarted or stalled by the policies of the next president.

Despite the recent regulatory reforms, travelers are still required to maintain a full-time schedule of authorized activities and retain their travel records, including receipts and logs of purchase, for five years. Such strict limitations create a chilling effect on basic travel and commerce.

2. The embargo and travel ban undermine our values

As international educators, we believe that travel is inherently educational and is a human right. Everything we do in our everyday jobs is dedicated to creating a more welcoming and globally engaged United States and more peaceful world. But simply lifting the U.S. travel ban without ending the trade embargo is not enough to engage with the island and empower the Cuban people. We must take our advocacy efforts a step further. The trade embargo makes educational programs unnecessarily difficult to operate because of restrictions on banking and exports. Yet it is more than just the logistics of operating programs that is at stake in this debate. The free exchange of people and ideas is one of the core tenets of our field. The embargo undermines that tenet and inhibits our ability to build trust. It also undermines our leadership in the entire Western Hemisphere. Lifting the embargo will create an environment of goodwill, mutual trust, and cooperation, which is critical if we are to cultivate effective relationships between higher education institutions in both of our countries.

3. Ending the embargo and lifting the travel ban benefits the Cuban people

As international educators, we believe that engagement, not isolation, is the right approach to foreign policy. Many of the existing financial barriers and operational hurdles (i.e. unifying Cuban currency and expanding telecommunications options for improved connectivity) must be rolled back by the Cubans. However, the U.S. embargo (or “blockade” as it’s known in Cuba) has choked the island economically and is used by the Cuban government as a justification to delay its own efforts at reciprocating our policy changes. Not only will removing the embargo boost the Cuban economy, it will empower the Cuban people, who can in turn put pressure on the government to be more responsive.

4. Ending the embargo and lifting the travel ban benefits the American people

International educators know that the value of exchange programs and education diplomacy are bidirectional. Opening up U.S. travel and commerce with Cuba is to our mutual benefit. We stand to learn a lot from Cuba’s advancements in medicine, education, environmental science, and emergency responsiveness. Lifting the embargo would open up countless opportunities to build meaningful understanding and collaboration between our nations, in a political environment where we are free to engage and learn from each other.

5. The embargo and travel ban are just plain bad policy

The United States’ policy of isolating Cuba is a relic of the Cold War. Its main objective was to squeeze out the Castro regime, but over 50 years later, the Castros remain in power, and it is the Cuban people who feel the economic effects of our sanctions. The embargo is failed policy, and the legislation to end it enjoys broad public and bipartisan support. Lifting the embargo is a cross-sector issue affecting numerous industries: agriculture, business, healthcare, and of course, education. That’s why NAFSA is working with a wide range of coalition partners to make the case for ending the travel ban and completely eliminating the embargo.

Education has routinely proven to be a catalyst for improving our world. Institutions of higher learning can provide opportunities to support democracy, advance human rights and foster civil society. Executive branch policy changes cannot fully reclaim academic exchange participation, which remains considerably short of levels achieved in the 1990s. By passing the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act and the Cuba Trade Act, Congress guarantees the American public the freedom to associate and conduct business with Cuba as freely as they are able to do with any other country in the world.

How You Can Make a Difference

Join the NAFSA Cuba Engagement Initiative, and sign up for the upcoming NAFSA Educators for Cuba Conference Call to get the latest information on legislation that will end the U.S. travel ban and trade embargo on Cuba. Learn how you can develop meaningful relationships with your members of Congress and make an impact on Capitol Hill.

#EndtheTravelBan #EndtheEmbargo


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