Justice cannot be done to the United States’ complicated relationship with our island neighbor, Cuba, in a short article. It can, however, point out some of the difficulties in the relationship that highlight a policy that doesn’t work and is inhumane to both Cubans and Americans. This article looks at several strands that are emblematic of the whole failed policy and the rancor with which the United States government (but not the majority of our people) treats Cuba and those U.S. citizens who seek to engage with Cuba.

"Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba"

In late 2003, President Bush initiated an inter-agency governmental commission to reassess our country’s policy toward Cuba. The report of this commission, composed of administration officials, was accepted in full by the president and was instituted as policy in June 2004. The goal of this policy is isolation, separation, and denial of resources to the Cuban government, but its provisions also heavily impact the well-being of the Cuban people. This policy, explicitly oriented toward “regime change” on the island, also affects U.S. citizens’ freedoms in the following ways:

1. Cuban Americans are prohibited from visiting their family on the island more than once every three years. There is no provision whatsoever for emergencies. For example, if a Cuban American visited an ailing mother in Cuba in 2004, and the mother died in 2006, that Cuban American could not travel to Cuba to attend her/his mother’s funeral–no exceptions. In addition, the U.S. government has unilaterally redefined who constitutes family for Cuban Americans. “Family” now excludes aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews, all of whom are considered close family in Latino culture. The arbitrary and punitive restrictions violate the “family values” that are a key tenet of this administration’s social policy. The Cuban-American community is shell-shocked by this anti-family-values policy regulation of their family life.

A Cuban-American family photo exhibit, Love, Loss and Longing: The Impact of U.S. Travel Policy on Cuban-American Families, is touring the country to draw national attention to the devastating human impact of the U.S. government’s Cuba policies. The exhibit features photographs of Cuban Americans who have been adversely affected by the U.S. travel policy. Each photograph is accompanied by a 250-word narrative–in English and Spanish–that tells a heartbreaking story of the loss and separation Cuban-American families have experienced as a result of U.S. restrictions.

The intent of the exhibit is to demonstrate the human consequences of the current travel policy and garner public and congressional support to rescind these restrictions. The photographs are the work of Nestor Hernández, Jr. and Juan-Sí González, both Cuban-American professional photographers. The people who appear in the photographs and whose stories are told were interviewed by social scientists Dr. Jeanne Lemkau (Wright State University, Ohio) and Dr. David Strug (Yeshiva University, NYC), as part of their larger research project on the effect of U.S. government policy on Cuban-American families. On May 11, 2006, the exhibit opened in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC, with support from members of the Cuba Working Group of the House of Representatives. This exhibit represents a collaborative effort of the Latin America Working Group Education Fund (LAWGEF) and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA ). See a digital version of the full exhibit at http://www.lawg.org/countries/cuba/photo-page1.htm.

2. Educational exchange and study abroad in Cuba are all but eliminated. Hundreds of U.S. colleges and universities have had U.S. Department of the Treasury licenses to conduct academic programs in Cuba for their students. The experience benefits all concerned by offering a way for neighboring peoples of two cultures to meet and learn about one another’s values, customs, histories, and politics. Now only a very limited number of academic programs that carry out full-semester (more than 10-week) programs are allowed to study in Cuba. All shorter programs, including summer courses, interims, and one-to-two week programs that include travel to Cuba as part of a larger course of study, are prohibited.

Academics and scholars consider this an unacceptable governmental intrusion into academic freedom. The Emergency Coalition to Defend Educational Travel (ECDET)–an association of over 450 professors and other educators including Dr. Wayne Smith of Johns Hopkins University, Dr. John Cotman of Howard University; and Jessica Kamen and Adnan Ahmad, both undergraduate students at Johns Hopkins University–filed a lawsuit on June 13, 2006 in U.S. District Court challenging the June 2004 restrictions on study abroad in Cuba. The suit filed against the U.S. Treasury Department over restrictions on educational travel claims that the restrictions clearly violate academic freedom as defined by the Supreme Court. ECDET argues that the First Amendment to the Constitution protects academic freedom, defined as the right of educators to decide, without any interference from the federal government, what courses will be taught, how they will be taught, who will teach them, and who can take them. The lawsuit and related press release can be found at http://www.ecdet.org/.

3. People-to-people travel and cultural exchanges by museums, alumni associations, musicians and artists, sporting teams, etc., are all eliminated. These measures separate the U.S. and Cuban people, prevent U.S. citizens from seeing with our own eyes the real situation in Cuba and hearing the views of Cubans themselves, and force U.S. citizens to depend on U.S. government proclamations and politicized views for our knowledge and opinions of the island. Cuba’s governmental system is different from ours, but so are China’s and Vietnam’s and we trade with, travel to, and have normal relations with those countries. Cuba is the only country in the world to which Americans cannot freely travel without U.S. government permission, and requests are regularly denied or ignored.

U.S. Government Interference in Religious Freedom

Though the written regulations of religious exchange with Cuba did not change under the first commission report’s recommendation, the interpretation did change. Main-line U.S. churches are increasingly frustrated as they try to visit sisters and brothers of faith (of which there are many–Cuban churches are filled to overflowing) in Cuba. Many denominations have had religious travel licenses and for years have conducted trips to Cuba to interact with partners for mutual support, to learn about them and the circumstances in which they live, to bring material aid, and to join Cuban Christians in worship and study. Repeatedly, applications for renewal of these licenses have been denied.

The denial letters state, ‘Your application is hereby denied because the Office of Foreign Assets Control determined that [whichever] Church does not qualify under 515.566(a) as a religious organization in accordance with the criteria as described in our Comprehensive Guidelines for License Applications to Engage in Travel-Related Transactions Involving Cuba‘.” Churches are told that they may re-apply under a new, much more restrictive regulation. Some are doing that, but the alternative license is totally inadequate for the denominations’ needs for contact with their partners in Cuba.

Churches are sharing information and strategies on how to confront this governmental intrusion into religious freedom and separation of church and state. Meetings have been held between high-level church officials and supportive members of Congress with the director of Treasury’s OFAC and the director of the State Department’s Office of Cuban Affairs. Letters of protest have been sent to the White House, the Department of State, and the Department of the Treasury. For up-to-date information on efforts to rescind the government’s illegal restrictions on religious freedom under its new Cuba policies, see LAWG’s website: http://www.lawg.org/countries/cuba/congress_watch.htm.

New Report from the Commission

In December 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reconvened the cabinet-level Commission for Assistance for a Free Cuba with the stated intention of presenting President Bush with a new report by May 2006, "with both updated recommendations to hasten democracy and an inter-agency strategic plan to assist a Cuban-led transition … and Cuba’s reintegration into the inter-American system." The Cubans expect what they think will be an overt “annexation plan.”

The State Department has said that the United States "will not accept a succession scenario” and that “there will not be a succession” from one socialist government to another. According to Article 94 of the Cuban Consititution of 1992, as First Vice President of the Council of State, Raul Castro (Fidel’s brother) would immediately assume power upon Fidel’s death or disability. The constitution then gives the responsibility to the National Assembly to choose the President of the Council of State (who is at the same time the head of state and the head of government). The U.S. government has expressed its rejection of this plan.

Just as this article was going to print, the Department of State (DOS) made public on July 10 its second report to the President from Bush’s Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. In fact, a bootlegged copy had been circulating for about a week before the announcement, so its content was no secret. Having just read the approximately 85-page advance document, presented under the names of Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State, as chair, and Carlos Gutierrez, Secretary of Commerce, as co-chair, it is appropriate to add a few words in summary and response.

The report contains seven chapters, including