Americans tourists can now (somewhat*) legally visit Cuba for the first time in over 50 years.
The relaxation of tensions with Cuba under the Obama administration has led to fewer restrictions on travel to Cuba from the United States, including new opportunities for cruise lines to sail to the island nation and daily commercial flights by a range of American airlines.
For decades, such travel was illegal for US citizens. The embargo on Cuba, instated in the early 1960s, has heavily restricted travel and trade with Cuba, and for many years the United States was committed to maintaining these restrictions unless Cuba improved its human rights record and transitioned to democracy.
Now, despite Cuba’s dictatorial government and continued human rights abuses, the United States is relaxing some of the embargo’s restrictions. But is this a good idea? Or will easing the embargo, like some critics suggest, legitimize the socialist Castro regime and reward the country’s human rights abuses?
To answer these questions, we must consider both the effects of the embargo and the effects of American tourism in Cuba.
Was the embargo successful?
By most measures, the American embargo has not been successful. Despite restrictions on trade and travel for over 50 years, the Castro regime still reigns in Cuba, democracy has not been adopted, and human rights abuses persist.
One reason for this is that the United States is alone in the embargo. Other nations regularly trade with and travel to Cuba, so the trade restrictions are hardly crippling. While Cuba would certainly benefit from trade with the U.S., the availability of other trading partners means the embargo doesn’t have the teeth it needs to effect political change.
Bottom-up change from the Cuban people was also impeded by the embargo, as the people most likely to spread the ideas of freedom, democracy, and the wealth created by free trade—the American people—were unable to visit the country.
Maintaining the embargo also has negative impacts for the U.S. Americans not only miss out on trade with Cuba, but also suffer scorn from the international community. The United Nations has been calling for an end the embargo for over two decades. Given the United States’ historical support for several dictatorial regimes and continued trade with countries with records of human rights abuses like China, Venezuela, and Vietnam, the continued embargo is seen by many in the international community as hypocritical. The U.S. may in fact have little room to criticize, given its continued operation of Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
The effects of American tourism
Where the embargo failed, tourism may yet succeed.
More American tourism to Cuba will not only lead to the exchange of goods and services, but also the exchange of ideas. As tourists engage with the Cuban people, Cubans will have more exposure to the realities of life in a democracy as compared to a dictatorship, and will see first-hand the wealth created by free and open trade. In return, Americans will also have a better understanding of the political and economic struggles of the Cuban people.
Already the thawed relations between the U.S. and Cuba have made a small impact. When President Obama visited Cuba in March of this year, international attention was drawn not only to ongoing pro-democracy protests, but also the Cuban government’s violent suppression of such demonstrations.
Only time will tell if rolling back the restrictions will bring real change to Cuba. But one thing is certain: the United States can’t bring freedom to Cuba by restricting its citizens’ freedom to travel there.
*Tourism trips to Cuba are still technically illegal for American citizens. Americans are required to have an “acceptable reason**” for travel.
**Acceptable reasons include things like providing humanitarian aid, religious trips, and visiting family members. Also allowed are trips for “educational activities and people-to-people exchanges”, which is the reason provided by the American cruise ships permitted to sail to Cuba.