WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
29 Aug 2007

Democrats Offer New Ideas on Cuba Policy; WOLA Urges Wider Debate

Two Democratic candidates for the U.S. presidency, Barack Obama and Christopher Dodd, have offered new proposals to loosen U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba.  WOLA appreciates Senators Obama and Dodd for their fresh thinking on Cuba and hopes their statements will lead to a wider debate among all the candidates on how to change our failed Cuba policy.

In an opinion piece in The Miami Herald and, last weekend, during a campaign appearance in south Florida, Obama called for lifting restrictions on Cuban-Americans to travel to Cuba to visit family members and to send remittances to them from U.S. soil.

Currently no other country in the world is subject to travel restrictions of the kind that prevent Americans from visiting Cuba. Cuban-Americans were formerly able to visit Cuba freely to visit relatives, but those visits have also been sharply restricted under Bush Administration regulations.

In his Herald piece, Obama, of Illinois, said that Cuban-American visits to Cuba are “not only a basic right in humanitarian terms, but also our best tool for helping to foster the beginnings of grass-roots democracy on the island.” 

Dodd has made an even more constructive proposal for U.S. relations with Cuba, proposing an end to all restrictions on Americans to travel to Cuba.  Dodd, who represents Connecticut in the Senate, is a co-sponsor of Senate bill S.721, the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2007, which would lift restrictions on all U.S. passport holders to travel to Cuba.

“It is simply un-American to bar American citizens from traveling to foreign countries. In fact, Americans are currently free to travel to both Iran and North Korea, two countries which pose far more serious threats to American national security than the government of Cuba,” Dodd said in a statement on August 15.

WOLA, the research and advocacy group, believes that lifting the ban on travel to Cuba would foster the people-to-people exchanges that will help reconstruct the relationship between the United States and Cuba after nearly five decades of hostility.

“At its core, democracy depends on open dialogue. All Americans should be allowed to travel freely to Cuba and to engage in dialogue with people on the island,” said Elsa Falkenburger, WOLA’s Program Officer for Cuba. “The most egregious violation of rights, however, is against Cuban-Americans, who cannot visit their own families in Cuba.”

The U.S. policy of isolating Cuba and cutting it off from contact with the United States has clearly not succeeded in bringing positive change to Cuba. A new approach is needed, and people-to-people contacts are a good place to start. Opinion polls show that most Americans – and most Cuban-Americans – support lifting the Cuban travel ban.

The recent illness of Cuban leader Fidel Castro has prompted re-consideration of U.S. policy as new leadership assumes power in Cuba. “Cuba is at a crossroads,” said Falkenburger. “It is especially important for the United States to engage with Cuba at this time.  We will continue to be irrelevant in Cuba if we do not engage with it.”

Dodd and Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico have both traveled to Cuba in the past and met with Castro to discuss a range of issues. John Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina, recently came out in favor of family travel and had a steady voting record in favor of reforming current U.S. policy toward Cuba during his time in the Senate. Richardson and Edwards are also Democratic presidential candidates.