‘U.S. Travel Ban a Violation of Democracy’

by Catherine Murphy
CubaNow interview with Wayne Smith, former Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana
2 January 2002

‘The rights of American citizens are being violated on a daily basis … [they] should be out in the streets protesting, and a massive travel challenge would be in order’

CubaNow [CN]: Would you talk about the new situation with increased restrictions on travel to Cuba?

Wayne Smith [WS]: I think that Americans should have the right to travel to any country in the world. In 1967 the Supreme Court agreed with that, ruling that the government could not prohibit Americans from traveling to any given country. Until that time there was a so-called “blacklist” in the back of your passport, stating “this passport is not valid for travel to Bulgaria or North Korea and a series of other countries, including Cuba.” With the Supreme Court ruling of 1967 that these restrictions were unconstitutional, the “blacklist” was removed, and over the years travel controls were lifted. During the term of President Carter, he removed all remaining controls, including currency controls. At that point, there was not really a tourism industry in Cuba, but US citizens were free to visit Cuba if they wished. But in 1982, the Reagan administration restored currency controls and took the position that while the Supreme Court ruled that US citizens can travel to any country, they can’t spend a penny in the process. If you can’t pay for your travel, how can you come to Cuba? So the currency controls amounted to the same thing as new travel controls would have, and that’s where we are today.

Currency controls are based on the Trading with the Enemy Act, which can only be implemented in times of War and National Emergency. Where is the National Emergency? At first, it was because of the Cold War. What is it now? It’s simply that administration after administration has taken the position that this issue is an important part of foreign policy. And the courts won’t rule on it because they take the position that it’s not up to them to second guess the administration’s policy. The rights of American citizens are being violated on a daily basis and the courts say they can’t second guess the administration’s foreign policy!

But now, with the Cold War having been over for more than 10 years, public opinion in the US has steadily grown against travel controls, to the point that polls indicate the overwhelming majority of Americans want to see them lifted. That was reflected in Congress a few weeks ago; a large majority in the House of Representatives voted to approve an amendment which would have prohibited the use of Treasury Department funds to enforce travel controls. The Senate vote was even more overwhelming; with a 36 to 59 margin. The language of the two amendments -the House and the Senate versions- are the same. That was deliberate, because if there is a difference in language then you must go to a Conference Committee, iron out the differences, and come up with language that is acceptable to both houses. But if the language is the same, the Conference Committee is not necessary and the measure is supposed to go directly to the President for his signature or veto.

What happened was absolutely outrageous. Before the Conference Committee even met, a couple of Republican leaders from Congress came into the committee room and said “never mind what the majority wants, never mind the Rules of Congress; we’re not going to embarrass the President by sending him something that he would have to veto.” So now we have Homeland Security pulling people off airplanes to Cuba, saying that their licenses are not really valid. They are cracking down on Americans traveling to Cuba after this debacle in Congress, in which the will of the American people was expressed and a majority of the Congress ruled that travel controls should be neutralized. Far from that, they violate the majority rule and crack down. It’s shameful! American citizens shouldn’t put up with this. It’s an absolute outrage and a perversion of democracy.

CN: What do you think American citizens can or should do to address this?

WS: American citizens should be out in the streets protesting, and a massive travel challenge would be in order; people coming to Cuba by the thousands, through Mexico, Canada, and telling the government that they think they have a right to travel. If the government disagrees, let’s take it to Congress.

CN: Are you seeing any of this happening? Are people organizing around this issue in the United States?

WS: It’s hard to say. There is anger and outrage. I notice that Senator Baucus came out with a statement saying that this shouldn’t be tolerated, and that something has to be done. He was going to get together with other members of the Senate and see what could be done about it. Leaving aside the question of travel to Cuba itself, the issue is also how the will of the majority was so thwarted, in such an outrageous and illegal manner. Something has to be done. It can’t be allowed to stand. Being here this time in December, I’ve spoken to many Americans who are here. They have so enjoyed their visits, taking advantage of the fascinating art, the cultural scene, the music, the painting. There is a sense of deep sadness and anger at the thought that they may not be able to come back again. That simply can’t be allowed to happen.

CN: What can you tell us about your professional history?

WS: It’s a long story. I fought in the Korean War, I was a Marine. One frozen night as we were lobbing shells at each other, the absurdity of war overwhelmed me. What in God’s name are we all doing out here? I made up my mind at that point that I was going to become a diplomat. I didn’t really know what diplomats did, but they certainly worked in warm rooms. So after I got out of the Marine Corps, I went to school in Mexico, where I earned a masters degree, and, at the suggestion of my Mexican professor, wrote my thesis on a comparison of the Monroe Doctrine and the Iron Curtain, simply as instruments of two new political systems to insulate their spheres of influence during a period of consolidation. A year later, in 1956, I went to Washington to look for a job and began easing into the Foreign Service. I found a job immediately in the Bureau of Intelligence Research in the State Department. They were looking for an expert in communist movements and doctrines in Latina America, and I didn’t know anything about communist movements and doctrines, but I thought I could put myself forward. And, at the salary they were offering, I didn’t think anyone else would know any more. I thought I could put myself forward on the basis of the topic of the thesis: the Monroe Doctrine and the Iron Curtain, Soviet Union, Latin America, but I was pretty sure that no one would read it. I got the job. By the time my security clearance went through, it was March of 1957. Fidel Castro had returned to Cuba in December of 1956, and I was immediately put to work on this project to determine whether the 26 of July Movement was or was not a communist organization. Mine was a very minor role, but the conclusions we came to stood the test of time. No, Fidel Castro was not a communist. The 26 of July Movement certainly was not.

Because of my time in the Marine Corps and the Far East, my idea had been to come into the Foreign Service and become a Chinese language officer. But, after having been put to work on Cuba in March of 1957, I took the Foreign Service exams, passed, and was taken into the Foreign Service. As soon as I was through the basic course, I was immediately transferred to Cuba, because I had been working here. I arrived in July 1958 as Third Secretary of the US Embassy, and was here until we broke relations in January of 1961. I had fallen in love with the place. I thought the Cuban people were about the nicest I had met anywhere in the world. And so I vowed that night as we sailed out of the harbour that I would be with the first group of American diplomats to return. And 16 years later, I was. I had to punch all kinds of buttons to do this. They told me that when they re-opened the post, they were going to want someone with Soviet as well as Cuban experience, so I spent a year studying Russian in Moscow. I spent six years in Soviet Affairs as one of the buttons I had to push to come back. But it worked, and I was with the first group of American diplomats to return to Cuba, and I helped set up the Interests Section here -of course, they opened theirs in Washington. I became Director of Cuban Affairs in the Department of State, so I wasn’t the first Chief of the Interest Section; I was the second. I came down in 1979 and was here until 1982. I came under President Carter, when I thought there was still a hope of moving toward normalization of relations. Then Reagan was elected, and Cuba became sort of the evilest part of the Evil Empire, and I decided to leave the Foreign Service.

That was 21 years ago. I left vowing not to really retire and start around the world on a sailboat –which has always been my dream– until there were normal relations between Cuba and the United Sates. So here I am, still working at it. Now, apparently, I’m going to be far too old to get on that sailboat and start around the world by the time there are normal relations. The Bush administration is the worst yet in terms of its determination not to improve relations, and prevent any engagement at all with Cuba, treating Cuba as a rogue and terrorist state. There are many things that I disagree with here, too. I am a Jeffersonian Democrat, so there are things here that I disagree with, and I am very honest about my views. But I respect Cuban sovereignty, and I think that the worst thing the US can do is to threaten and pressure and try to dictate to Cuba. Why don’t we just say “Look, we have some differences with you, but let’s begin dialogue. The Cold War is over; we’re prepared to have a new relationship with you. Let’s begin to talk about our disagreements.” That is the way to accomplish far more, by reducing tensions, moving toward a normal relationship, but I don’t think that this administration would even contemplate such a thing, which is very depressing and sad.

CN: What did you do after leaving the Foreign Service?

WS: When I left the Foreign Service in 1982, I went back to being a professor. I went first to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where I spent two years. Then I moved to a position as an Adjunct Professor of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington; then I moved again. We had organized a Cuban Exchange Program, which we eventually moved to Baltimore, so I am now teaching at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, directing the Cuban Exchange Program from there. I am also, since 1992, the Senior Associate at the Centre for International Policy in Washington. We have a Cuba Program. We advocate normalization of relations, lifting of the travel controls, and do whatever we can to help bring that about.

CN: Have you seen popular opinion change in the US in the last 10 years?

WS: I think public opinion has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. Before that, Cuba was not a big issue. The principal global adversary was the USSR; Cuba was seen as a small adjunct, but we couldn’t engage with Cuba because of the Soviet Union. I disagreed with that, but I think that was the majority public opinion. Then the Cold War ended. More and more people began to travel to Cuba. When they saw Cuban reality for themselves, opinions changed. Back in that period in the Carter Administration, when there were no travel controls, there wasn’t a real tourist industry here. Very few Americans came during that period. But, because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Cuba’s economic ties with the Soviet Union, Cuba had to turn to some other means of earning hard currency. They began to set up a tourist industry, and more and more Americans have come ever since; which has helped to change attitudes. Polls now indicate that the overwhelming majority of Americans want to see travel controls lifted. They realize that travel controls are obsolete, they violate the rights of Americans and they are counterproductive. We don’t accomplish anything by these travel controls. We would do far better to reduce tensions and engage.

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