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Chronicle of a Farce Foretold: The Travel Ban Stays
by Jon Hillson

The following November 2003 article appears in slightly different forms in English at CubaNow (developed by the Cuban Film Institute [ICAIC] and the Martin Luther King Memorial Center), and in Spanish under the title of 'Lo malo, lo feo y lo previsible' ['The bad, the ugly, and the predictable'] at La Jiribilla, website sponsored by the Cuban daily, Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth).

LOS ANGELES--The Los Angeles Times, paper of record on the West Coast, got it right –even if inadvertently– in its November 13 report on the decision by a congressional conference committee to retain longstanding sanctions against travel to Cuba.

In a three-paragraph item in its "In Brief" notices, the Times stated, "Senate and House negotiators bowed to a threatened presidential veto and accepted that a 42-year ban on travel to Cuba should remain in place."

Fittingly, the "negotiators" did indeed "bow." They put the finishing touches on an extended charade, a farce entitled, "Congress debates Cuba travel ban," once again delivering the goods to their bosses. There was only artificial suspense to this climax foretold.

All the protagonists played their respective roles to the hilt, from liberal Democrats in search of a cheap way to polish their tattered images by rebuffing the Bush administration, to conservative Republicans in farm states courting votes in the name of trade with Cuba.

And, to be sure, such forward-thinking members of both parties found common cause in the House of Representatives and the Senate with repeated declarations of hostility to the "Castro dictatorship." The despots in Havana would be more effectively undermined by flooding Cuba with U.S. tourists, their dollars, and their transmission of "American values." The main refrain of this bi-partisan chorus was, and remains, that the current sanctions regime has been "ineffective." And a "new approach" –theirs– is now needed to propel the stalled "transition to democracy" on the island ahead.

Both chambers of the government voted to withhold funds for enforcing the travel ban through its chief executing agencies, the Treasury Department, Office of Foreign Assets Control, and Department of Homeland Security. The caveat to such legislative action was widely covered in the media: this language would never reach the desk of President George Bush.

In fact, the measure itself was presented as a parliamentary maneuver, attached to a multi-billion dollar transportation bill. All the president's men made clear he would veto the entire package should the travel amendment advance. Resolution of this dilemma was openly anticipated, the elimination of the offending amendment from the main legislation.

This was done with dispatch on the night of November 12, when Republican politicians brought in the transportation bill, minus any reference to Cuba travel. The commander-in-chief was thus spared the ugly duty of casting the first veto of his presidency.

Of course, this possibility was never a serious consideration. Criticisms by several members of congress that the removal of the Cuba travel language was undertaken in an "undemocratic" fashion were also announced, as already designed.

The entire structure of the U.S. government, its parliamentary rules and customs, the norms and standards of the bourgeois electoral process which staffs its chambers, are entirely undemocratic. They are an edifice whose existence is predicated on the hegemony of capital. It is a government of, by, and for the last empire.

The whole 'Cuba travel' spectacle is reminiscent of the moment in 'Casablanca' when Claude Raines' Inspector Renaud shuts down the nightclub owned by Humphrey Bogart's Rick, to whom Renaud, a regular at the roulette table, says, "I'm shocked, shocked to learn that gambling is going on here."

What a shock that Democratic and Republican politicians function in an "undemocratic" manner!

That the predictable excision of the Cuba travel measure took place out of the public eye, under the cover of darkness, is merely standard operating procedure. It is hardly new and will continue. Secrecy and semi-secrecy are essential modes of operation for the machinery of capitalist states, big and small, everywhere.

The public hearings on the travel ban, which took place during the summer, and featured sharp criticism of U.S. policy, were just for show. Shortly after them, in September, Senator John Kerry –his repeatedly overhauled campaign now run by Kennedy cadres– and Howard Dean, both liberal aspirants for the presidency, renounced their previous opposition to sanctions and Cuba travel restrictions, each stating in their own way that "now" was not the time to do so. This was a not-so-subtle clue from U.S. ruling circles, through two Democrats yearning for their imprimatur, that it was time to get in line.

The supposed partisans of de-funding enforcement of travel sanctions, on the night in question, despite their professed indignation, merely continued with business as usual, as is the norm, later issuing ceremonial protest faxes. This is what they do. This is who they are.

The day before, as the sun shone outside the senate, many of the same politicians who were hoping to overthrow the "Castro dictatorship" with yankee dollars voted 89-4 to give the president –without White House solicitation– a massive sanctions package to be used, at his discretion, against Damascus. A month earlier, their colleagues in the House had taken the initiative on such action, approving the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty act by a vote of 398-4.

The main sponsor in the House was Ilena Ros-Lehtinen of Miami, a Republican. In the Senate, the chief Democratic proponent was Barbara Boxer, of California, considered the most liberal member of the body.

The Syria sanctions measures –and the immense majority of the votes for them– coupled with the overwhelming congressional approval of the $87 billion White House request for further military, security, and "reconstruction" projects in Iraq and Afghanistan earlier this month, explain why the "debates" and votes on Cuba travel were nothing but an elaborate theatrical exercise, whose denouement was as inevitable as it was banal and dirty.

The central reason the travel ban will "remain in place," as the Los Angeles Times reported so delicately, is that, as part of the overall sanctions regime and U.S. blockade of Cuba, it fits into increasing attacks on democratic rights in the United States. Various federal police agencies and departments implement the USA Patriotic Act, attempting to shred the Bill of Rights along the way, as so ordered.

Massively approved by both houses of Congress two years ago, the act foresaw the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Such a cabinet-level body was recommended by a Clinton administration-empowered panel at the end of its reign.

The USA Patriot Act extended and expanded measures proposed by the Clinton administration in the 1996 "anti-terrorism" legislation approved by the Congress. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) who claims, perhaps accurately, to be the most "progressive" of the Democrats campaigning for nomination to occupy the White House, favors a pruning of funds for the Pentagon that would ensure the United States retains a "muscular defense."

Boxer, Kerry, Dean, and Kucinich form one pole, with Ros-Lehtinen, Delay, Frist, and Díaz Balart the other, of the Congressional "war party" which, with whatever nuance of tactical difference, combines with the White House to advance U.S. imperial interests, by any means necessary, utilizing every ruse and deceit possible.

The White House announced new efforts to restrict travel to Cuba on October 10, as the president denounced "abuses" of licensed travel and a crackdown on voyagers to Cuba from third countries –passages without the explicit, and increasingly difficult to obtain, permission from the Treasury Department.

Agents of the Office of Homeland Security are now questioning licensed passengers on Cuba-bound flights from the United States. Third country travelers, hoping to avoid federal operatives, are reportedly being observed upon disembarking in Canada, Mexico, and the Bahamas – then cited for civil penalties.

The Treasury Department has hired an administrative law judge to try the first 50 alleged violators of the U.S. 'Trading with the Enemy' law as cited by OFAC, some perhaps as long as five years ago.

Hundreds of these travelers are awaiting hearings. Many have received notices of fines of an average of $7,500. People-to-people licenses, which enabled this year as many as 20,000 U.S. residents to travel to Cuba, universally expired on December 31. Restrictions on other licenses for non-governmental organizations have been sharply increased, as have regulations governing research and academic licenses.

Meanwhile, Washington has fortified its cultural Berlin Wall against invited Cuban artists, musicians, trade unionists, student and youth leaders, and many others, denying visas for performances, lectures, and attendance at scientific and educational gatherings as a matter of routine. This U.S. iron curtain is aimed at the people of the United States to quarantine from them all things Cuban.

This pattern of victimization, harassment, and slashing of already limited travel rights –to and from Cuba– has been implemented without significant protest by the same elected officials who claim to oppose the sanctions regime. Lifting the travel ban would fly in the face of this intensifying, repressive trajectory. Expecting anything favorable was naïve in the extreme, regardless of the congressional votes that preceded what transpired on November 12.

The lamentations by Democratic and Republican politicians who oppose the travel ban that has been "ineffective" in dealing blows to "totalitarianism" in Cuba reflect a near decade-long, narrow, tactical dispute in U.S. ruling circles over how to sabotage the Cuban revolution. The real background to this debate is the fact that Washington has failed in its decades-long economic war –at one time 'hot,' now cold, but always unrelenting– to divide and defeat the Cuban people and carry out 'regime change' on the island. Defenders of Cuba's right to self-determination seek no place at the table at which the mortal foes of Cuban sovereignty wrangle over the nuances of imperialist strategy.

The aging and death of the traditional, ultra-rightist, counter-revolutionary, criollo exile layer in Miami has given way to new generations of immigrants who do not have a political, ideological, or economic stake in the mortally wounded "anti-Castro" project. This effort, from the beginning, was always organized from and by Washington.

Such officiating began in and with the U.S. embassy in Cuba, which helped organize counter-revolutionary activities on the island even before the January 1, 1959 triumph. It continued with the financing and selection of the mercenary leadership for the invasion at Playa Girón, and the later implementation of the terrorist 'Operation Mongoose' plan under the supervision of then Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

The passage of the Cuban Adjustment Act was signed by liberal Democratic President Lyndon Johnson after its ratification by a Democratic party-dominated congress in 1966.

With the defeat of its terrorist and sabotage initiatives, the White House adjusted, moving towards a more 'political' approach through the Reagan administration's creation of the Cuban-American National Foundation through the National Endowment for Democracy in 1980. The White House anointed Jorge Mas Canosa as its cacique, providing significant governmental and financial support to its chosen clients in Miami.

Washington has made every key political, personnel, and strategic decision for the Miami ultraright. Today, more than ever, the dwindling, divided, and fundamentally defeated 'gusanera' is more dependent than ever on the U.S. government for its authority.

It is the flea on the tail that does not wag the dog.

Univisión anchor Maria Elena Salinas –utterly hostile to Cuba– was partially correct in her November 9 syndicated column when she noted, "The most ironic point about the embargo and travel ban is that its biggest supporters are its biggest violators," a reference to Cuban-Americans in southern Florida. Numerous polls over the past several years indicate that such alleged "big support" to sanctions has melted, with a majority favoring their easing and up to 70 percent opposed to the travel ban. "It's also true that Cuban- Americans –understandably so– travel frequently to Cuba to visit their loves ones, and send millions of dollars a year to their families on the island. There are a growing number of Cuban exiles who realize that the embargo is a failure," she writes.

The real "irony" is that this process is in frank opposition to current U.S. policies. Cuban-Americans traveling without licenses to the island –required for the second and subsequent family visits made during the year– will increasingly run into Homeland Security agents checking, for the first time, their documents. And they better have them, no matter how much some may loudly repudiate 'los hermanos castristas'.

Both Democrats and Republicans promote the fiction of a monolithic Miami Cuban-American population opposed to any change in this stance –and to whom they must therefore 'cater' for votes– as the central reason for the maintenance of the embargo and travel ban. This is view is as false, deceptive, and self-serving.

A subordinate aim of Washington's economic war against Cuba is to promote the fable of 'fortress Miami.' This construction seeks to provide a Cuban-American fig leaf for U.S. hostility to Havana, the single most consistent element of imperialist foreign policy over the last 45 years, regardless of the political leaning of the White House occupant and whichever capitalist party holds a congressional majority.

The notion that the effort to capture a fraction of the increasingly class-divided 'Cuban-American vote' in southern Florida –which constitutes about one percent of those who do cast ballots in U.S. presidential elections– is the axis Washington's posture towards Havana is, in a word, absurd.

'Lobbies' do not determine the actions of imperialism. 'Voting blocs' do not decide how the overlords of the empire react to the challenges posed by those they target as enemies.

The cold, hard fact is that if the ruling circles in the United States wanted the travel ban lifted, it would be. This was the case in 1978-80 under the Carter administration, even as the blockade remained in place. Travel to Cuba was legalized. Charter flights opened up, and regular tours were organized by, among others, the Peoples Daily World and The Militant, periodicals reflecting the views of the Communist Party and Socialist Workers Party, respectively.

At that time, the Miami ultra-right was far more united than it is today. There was nothing like the demand to travel to Cuba that there is now, either by Cuban-Americans or among students and youth, activists, professionals, researchers, and working people. Larger considerations were then in play – the need by the empire to clean the muddied face of imperialism after its aggression in Indochina and the revelations of domestic spying and abuses of democratic rights that emerged with the Watergate crisis.

Washington's brief cosmetic surgery ended with the rise of revolutionary struggle in Central America, the victory of the Grenadian and Nicaraguan revolutions, and the overthrow of the Shah's hated 'peacock throne' of Washington's client in Iran. The travel ban was restored, as the United States readied to confront new difficulties – and old ones, like Cuba, whose revolution had been strengthened by such developments.

At no time in this process were the sensibilities, opinions, or 'votes' of right-wing exiles part of the calculations of the ruling rich or their twin parties.

The New York Times, the voice of imperialist liberalism – which did not report either the record-breaking November 4 vote of condemnation of the embargo in the United Nations General Assembly on or the elimination of language lifting the travel ban in Washington on November 12 – repeated the useless claim of Miami's centrality in Cuba 'policymaking' in a November 15 editorial, which follows in full:

Fidel’s Triumph on Capitol Hill
"In the debate over how to export American values to Cuba, Congressional leaders have managed to import some of Fidel Castro's values. That old tyrant in Havana is the prime beneficiary of the decision this week to drop a measure that would have effectively lifted the ban on travel to Cuba. He can now go on railing against Yankee imperialism, trying to pin the blame for all of his regime's shortcomings and brutality on American sanctions.

"The measure to lift the travel ban was dropped as House and Senate conferees met to reconcile their spending bills for the Transportation and Treasury Departments. On Cuba, however, there was nothing to reconcile: both chambers' provisions were identical. A Congressional staff member explained the maneuver as a way to spare the White House an embarrassment. President Bush did not want to have to veto the legislation in order to woo Cuban-American voters in Florida, subverting foreign policy principles applied to much of the rest of the world.

"Perhaps Congressman Jeff Flake, a conservative Republican from Arizona who has been a leader in the fight to lift the travel ban, best explained the lamentable politics behind the week's antics: ‘For the same reason we will never have a rational farm policy as long as presidential campaigns begin in Iowa, we will never have a rational Cuba policy as long as presidential campaigns are perceived to end in Florida’."

Two points are worth making. There was no congressional "fight" led by Representative Flake, or any other member of that body, "to lift the travel ban." His function was to pose in that role –all the while slandering and denouncing Cuba– while simultaneously being lauded by the media for his 'courage' as co-star of the production.

But his place in the cast, like that of his colleagues and all the other bit players was just part of the act, including the "antics" that appear to irritate the Times, whose owners express profound frustration of that section of their class over Washington's failures in Cuba. They cling to the reactionary, utopian belief that a rush of visitors and their spending habits will convince the Cuba's workers and farmers to surrender all that they have won for a chance to wear Nikes, eat at McDonalds's and have unlimited access to the cultural production of Britney Spears.

Secretly, they fear, as Felipe Pérez Roque told 800 people gathered in a Harlem church in September, just what those tourists "might learn in Cuba."

The empire's reflexive hatred of revolution –arrogantly embodied in the standard first paragraph diatribe of the New York Times editorial– flows from the permanent conflict between antagonistic social and economic systems, 90 miles apart. These two systems produce entirely different sets of values and morality. Washington and Havana express utterly opposed concepts of what human beings are capable of becoming.

The rivalry between what the Cuban revolution has accomplished, and what the unsustainable economic system headed by Washington seeks to destroy, does not exist in some narrow, bilateral vacuum.

Precisely because the U.S. economic system is unsustainable, that the world it seeks to dominate by pillage and war is so unstable, Cuba's example – the example of the leadership of its revolution – assumes greater weight and importance than its small population and geographic size would otherwise warrant.

Because Latin America, in particular, undergoes crises of volcanic consequences, the option and alternative Cuba's defiant people offer –the pole of revolutionary resistance, of human solidarity as pillar of social development, of a willingness to defend genuine sovereignty– have greater appeal than ever. The last four years in Latin America have been marked by repeated early departures of hated governments –under the pressure of mass upsurges– general strikes, and the irreversible crisis of the U.S. 'model’.

Decisive sectors of U.S. ruling circles –big capital– the dominant powers of the empire, clearly understand than any serious relaxation of U.S. sanctions against Cuba would only be seen in Latin America as a defeat for the United States and a reward to Cuba's working people for their 45 years of resistance.

This sends exactly the opposite message Washington, Wall Street, and the Pentagon promote in the world: that opposition to the American colossus is futile. Cuba's endurance proves the opposite, while asserting that those prepared and willing to fight expose the real weaknesses and deepening vulnerabilities of the empire.

The façade of the U.S. system of 'checks and balances' exists only to conceal the reality that the presidency, congress, and the judiciary are subordinate to and execute 'policies' that defend the interests of this ruling class, whose military functions as the policeman of the world, including at its concentration camp base in Guantánamo.

In this division of labor between the dominant imperialist power and its lesser allies and rivals, Washington is willing to sacrifice modest potential profits certain sectors of the U.S. economy could make in Cuba –tourism above all– to its responsibility for attempting to isolate and weaken the revolution. Too bad for Marriot, Hilton, and Holiday Inn.

Today the array of demagogic and false arguments that pass as 'debate' over whether or not sanctions against Cuba –the parameters of the congressional tempest in a teapot, of the New York Times, of how to most 'effectively' smother the Cuban revolution– can less and less conceal the reality which girds U.S. opposition to Cuba. That there is a revolutionary alternative to the horror, misery, and death that stalks the lives of billions of people in the world, that there is a living example of the ideas, leadership, and lessons of victorious struggle available in that world for people willing to reach for and apply them.

In the United States today, particularly among the newest generations of political activists, especially Latino and Black youth, there is greater curiosity than ever about Cuba. And such interest extends to trade-unionists, farmers, artists and musicians, and truly broad layers of society. The reality of social crisis in the United States drives the desire to learn about Cuba. This is underscored by the likelihood that by the end of 2003 as many as 200,000 U.S. residents will have visited Cuba, tens of thousands of them without licenses. They are the tip of the iceberg of demand that Washington, finally and ultimately, must seek to intimidate and repress. It must slow the flow.

That is the lesson of what transpired on November 12.

Whatever happens with the implementation of intensified sanctions on travel to Cuba – and the travelers who run afoul of U.S. laws, including Cuban-Americans – fights against these abuses will unfold, just as other acts of injustice provoke responses of resistance.

These will be real fights, not choreographed congressional 'debates', every word and movement rehearsed, the end result of which is always, 'shockingly' the same.

There will be genuine confrontations between broad forces who defend the right to travel, and the U.S. government.

How they erupt can't be predicted. But it is clear that Washington fears a public fight around its repression and prosecution of Cuba travelers.

Such conflicts will evolve in the context of battles generated by a deepening economic and social crisis, generalized attacks on civil liberties, and protests against the inevitable wars of an empire in decline. This process has just begun to awaken working people. It will link new generations of rebel youth in the United States with their brothers and sisters in the Americas.

They are just some of "giants awakening," to whom Fidel Castro referred in his July 26 speech on the 50th anniversary of the assault on the Moncada and Bayamo barracks, launching the final phase of Cuba's struggle for genuine independence. Some of these forces are now "advancing with already unrestrained force," Fidel stated, "the future belongs to these peoples."

These are also the forces that will increasingly lend tangible power to the demand that Washington end its criminal blockade of Cuba, normalize relations with Havana, and lift its undemocratic and unconstitutional ban on travel to the island. In so doing, they will draw strength from and give renewed solidarity to Cuba in the approaching battle for a better world that is possible, but only through relentless struggle.

– felled by a heart attack in Spring 2004 at the age of 54 – was an airline worker, celebrated writer, and coordinator of the Los Angeles Coalition in Solidarity with Cuba. Some of his many friends and comrades are collecting his work at .

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