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You Can’t Go There: A Short History of the Cuba Travel Ban

John Tarleton Apr 28, 2007

you cant copy
A photograph taken by a Beacon High School student captures a vista of the Cuban countryside.
PHOTO: Jason
By John Tarleton

Restrictions on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba were first enacted in 1963 at the height of the Cold War. They were briefly relaxed during Jimmy Carter’s administration only to be reinstituted in 1982 by Ronald Reagan.

The impetus for the travel restrictions, and a similarly long-lived U.S. trade embargo of Cuba, comes primarily from hard-line anti-Castro exiles based in southern Florida. This group helped provide George W. Bush’s narrow margin of victory in the 2000 presidential election and Bush repaid the favor in June 2004 by imposing tougher travel regulations, which include a provision that only allows academic travel for full-time professional scholars and graduate or undergraduate students studying in Cuba for at least 10 weeks.

Technically, the travel ban does not forbid travel to Cuba at all. However, under the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act, the government does make it illegal to have any financial transactions in Cuba under most circumstances without a license from the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control.

In October 2006, Alexander Acosta, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, announced the formation of a multi-agency task force headed by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez that would more aggressively pursue violators of the travel ban and the trade embargo with penalties that would include tens of thousands of dollars in fines.

Nonetheless, support for the travel ban appears to be waning in the most unlikely of places. According to an April poll released by Florida International University, 55 percent of Cuban-Americans in Miami now favor unrestricted travel to Cuba. According to Time Magazine April 23, the new trend “has raised expectations that travel to and at least limited trade with the island will start up again after Bush leaves office in 2009.”

One group that need not worry at all about being prosecuted for its engagement with Cuba is U.S. agribusiness. The industry has seen its trade with Cuba jump from nearly zero to $3.4 billion per annum over the past six years under a revision to the embargo passed during the dying days of the Clinton administration, which allows for the sale of food to Cuba for “humanitarian reasons.”

If Nathan Turner and his students had gone to Havana to sell pork bellies instead of raising their political consciousness, they might not be in any trouble at all.