After nearly half a century of frozen relations with Cuba, Congress is considering steps that could create thousands of American jobs and establish a valuable cultural exchange between the two countries. On June 30, the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act (HR 4645) narrowly passed the House Agriculture Committee by a 25-20 vote. If enacted, this bill would finally allow Americans to travel to Cuba and reduce restrictions on agricultural exports to the island. Although it must still pass the House Financial Services Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee before reaching the House floor, this event is noteworthy because unlike similar measures that have died in committees, HR 4645 was actually brought to a vote.
Nearly 50 years of sanctions have taken their toll on the Cuban economy, costing the country approximately $685 million each year. The non-monetary consequences are pervasive as well, felt in local businesses as well as in hospitals. For instance, the embargo prevents Cuba from acquiring certain medical materials that can only be obtained from American companies. This has greatly complicated the treatment of certain pediatric cancers and has made diagnosis very difficult. Nevertheless, there is surprisingly little anti-American sentiment among the Cuban people.
After 48 years of a crippling, ineffective policy, Cubans, Americans, and the international community are ready to see a change in the status quo. On May 30, 74 leading members of Cuban civil society sent a letter to Congress urging a lifting of the travel ban. Collectively, the activists argue that the presence of U.S. visitors on the streets would strengthen Cuban civil society while continued “isolation of the people of Cuba benefits the most inflexible interests of its government.” Approximately 70 percent of Americans support lifting travel restrictions to Cuba.
Although the impact of lifting the travel ban is debatable, tourism will likely pump money into the Cuban economy while simultaneously creating American jobs. A March 2010 study by Texas A&M University estimates that “loosening export and travel restrictions to Cuba could spark $365 million in sales of U.S. goods and create 6,000 new jobs in the United States, leading to a $1.1 billion economic impact.” On the island, an influx of tourists could improve the non-state sector of the economy and raise living standards. A repeal of travel restrictions would also open the door for study abroad programs and valuable educational and cultural exchanges.
Given the resilience of the Castro regime, continuing the embargo will not yield political change. When taking into account the well-being of the Cuban people as well as the constitutional right of Americans to travel freely, lifting the travel ban is a vital step.
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