06.05.19

Address On Cuba Travel Restrictions On Americans

Address Of Senator Patrick Leahy
On Cuba Travel Restrictions On Americans

Senate Floor
June 5, 2019

Mr. President, I have seen some dumb policies by Administrations over the years, when both Republicans and Democrats have occupied the White House.

I want to speak briefly about one of them. Because it is not just dumb. It is an embarrassment. And it is going to hurt a lot of Americans, and it is going to hurt a lot of good people in Cuba. There is absolutely no denying that.

I refer to the decision announced by the Treasury Department yesterday to severely restrict travel by Americans to Cuba. Their reason? Cuba’s support for Nicolas Maduro.

This Administration has reinstituted the Cold War restrictions on the right of every American citizen to travel to Cuba, even though an overwhelming majority of Americans opposes such restrictions.

Cruise ships will stop sailing. Educational and cultural exchanges will shut down. Sports teams will stay home. School trips will end. Trade missions will end. American farmers and companies will be shut out.

What kind of government thinks it has a right to tell its citizens where they can travel, and where they can spend their own money?

Ironically, not the Cuban government, despite its repressive policies. Cubans can travel to the United States if we grant them a visa.

Not Russia, a kleptocracy with nuclear weapons pointed at us that invades its neighbors, supports Syria’s President Assad and Nicolas Maduro, interferes in our elections, and opposes us at every turn in the UN Security Council. Americans travel to Russia without restriction, and Russians travel here.

Not Iran. It has a brutally repressive government, but it does not have laws or regulations that prevent its citizens from traveling to the United States or Americans from traveling there.

Not Nicaragua, led by a corrupt dictator. Nicaraguans can travel to any country that will accept them. And Americans are free to travel there.

In fact, Americans can travel anywhere without restriction, except to North Korea. And now Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida, whose people could not be more welcoming to Americans.

I know, because unlike the people in the White House and the Treasury Department, I have been there. My wife Marcelle has been there. One of my granddaughters has been there.

This Administration’s policy is being guided by a couple of hardliners in the National Security Council who have never set foot in Cuba, but who are on a crusade to pressure the Cuban government to change its policies.

After fifty years of trying and failing, they continue to believe that one way to do that is by preventing Americans from traveling to Cuba and spending their own money there.

Of all the paternalistic, anachronistic, hypocritical policies that is beneath the world’s oldest democracy.

We tried it for fifty years. It failed. In fact it backfired. The Cuban authorities solidified their control. And this will backfire too. If past experience is any guide, it will cause them to intensify their support for Maduro.

We all want Maduro gone. But are we so blinded by arrogance and ideology that we are destined to keep repeating our mistakes?

If this policy makes sense for Cuba, why not for other repressive governments whose policies we disagree with? Like China, which has imprisoned a million of its Uyghur citizens and whose military is deeply involved in the economy? Millions of Americans travel there without restriction.

Egypt, which has destroyed what fragile democratic institutions existed there, and locked up thousands of political opponents as well as American citizens. President al Sisi is called a great friend by President Trump.

Saudi Arabia, which commits war crimes in Yemen, treats women as property, and murdered Jamal Khashoggi and other dissidents. The Crown Prince is apparently untouchable, and the President and Secretary of State seem to prefer it that way. But Americans can travel to Saudi Arabia without restriction.

Most of all, these regulations are an insult to every American and a disgrace to a free society. Since when is it the role of the Federal government to say where Americans can travel and spend their own money, absent some threat to national security or to their own health and safety – neither of which exists in Cuba?

You know who is going to be hurt? The people who most deserve our help. The Cuban families who own small businesses. Who rent out rooms in their apartments. Who own their own taxis and restaurants. Artisans and musicians.

People who otherwise subsist on meager government salaries and rations, who benefit enormously from Americans who visit Cuba.

Of course we disagree with the Cuban government. We strongly disagree. We disagree with many governments, over Venezuela and other issues. But does that give the Treasury Department the right to tell Americans they can’t travel there?

What if the Treasury Department imposed such restrictions on travel by Members of Congress? There is not a single Senator who would accept that. What hypocrisy.

Freedom to travel is a right. It is fundamental. It is part of who we are as Americans. We travel. We explore. We meet people. We share our values. We build relationships with people we agree with and disagree with. Are we willing to stand by and let the right to travel of private Americans be trampled this way?

I will have more to say about this self-defeatist policy when I introduce the “Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act.”

I would urge all Senators to not let the same old, worn out, Cold War, isolationist, fear mongering, failed arguments about Cuba stand in the way of common sense.

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