US freedoms and Cuba
"I'm North American, you know, don't like to hear where I can't go
Free people will insist on the freedom to travel." - Jackson Browne
As debate over the Cuban travel ban continues in the US Congress, US citizens remain afraid of visiting their largest Caribbean neighbor. Most are probably unaware that Washington has virtually abandoned the policing of individual travel to Cuba.
While in 2003 the US Treasury fined 240 individuals, most for attempting to import Cuban cigars, in 2009 only three individuals were fined for Cuba-related transactions. Yet as Cuban tourism continues to grow, US citizens account for less than two percent of it.
US citizens are now engaged in effective self-enforcement of the travel ban. They are staying away despite there being virtually no risk that they will be caught or fined for visiting their closest and safest tourist destination.
This "self-control' is surprising for a large population which prides itself on individual liberties. As Jackson Browne suggests in his song, "Going Down to Cuba', the travel ban grates on the self-image of a "free people'.
Because of the heavy regulation of direct flights to Cuba (licensed flights, especially for Cuban-Americans in Miami) most independent US travelers simply pass through Canada or Mexico. As Jackson says "Maybe I'll go through Mexico, Old Jesse Helms don't have to know". The Cubans, helpfully, issue visas on a loose slip of paper, so no stamp is placed in your passport.
The bans on US citizens or residents traveling to Cuba have been in place for almost 50 years, despite being opposed by most of the US population and, in recent years, most Cuban-Americans. They are enforced by the US Treasury's Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC), a body which supervises US sanctions on a number of countries, including Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Burma and Cuba.
However the shift in OFAC activity in recent years, regarding Cuba, has been from travelers to internet transactions and from individuals to companies. The change is striking under the Obama Administration, but it was already happening under the Bush Administration.
In 2003 (when 84,000 US citizens visited Cuba) 240 individuals were fined for Cuba-related offenses. This fell to 31 in 2008 and 3 in 2009, when there were only 40,000 US visitors each year. At the same time, the corporate focus increased. OFAC records tell us that the 99 fines in 2008 netted $3.5 million, while the 27 fines in 2009 netted a huge $772.4 million.
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