Our Tropical Terrorist Tourist Trap

These days, it can be hard to tell that the United States still maintains its 40-year trade and travel embargo on Cuba. Jimmy Carter and Ralph Nader recently touched down on Fidel Castro's communist island in the Caribbean, just 90 miles from Florida's coast. North Dakota's Republican governor John Hoeven went there to drum up farm business for his state. And even Tampa, Fla.'s Democratic Mayor Dick Greco made a furtive trip to Cuba with 15 local business leaders (they caught hell when Florida's Cuban-American community found out).

In all, 176,000 Americans visited Cuba in the last year. Many were tourists: New Hampshire businessman Arnold Goldstein simply wanted to take a look at the country portrayed in his youth as an international bogeyman. (He recalls diving under his desk in drills to prepare for possible Soviet attacks from Cuban bases.) And despite the travel embargo, it's easy to get there. Any Internet search -- try "Cuba travel" -- turns up scores of travel agencies offering options that generally involve passing through countries with no embargo, usually Canada or Mexico. Goldstein and his wife didn't want to travel illegally and risk being fined up to $7,500 upon their return. They didn't have to: For an extra $100, a California travel agency hooked them up with licenses the U.S. government issues to academics, journalists and charitable associations. The Goldsteins became new members of the Sephardic Friendship Committee, an organization they had never heard of.

In fact, the travel ban has become so lax that this was an unnecessary precaution. On the Goldsteins' return, U.S. Customs Service agents showed no interest -- even when the couple volunteered information and offered to show their permits. Such a reception would have been inconceivable during the Cold War, when Cuba was Moscow's military and ideological beachhead in the Western hemisphere. Like the few U.S. journalists who managed to enter Cuba in those years, I was photographed (as were all other passengers) by local police at the Mexico City airport before boarding the flight for Havana. Once inside Cuba, I was assigned escorts who followed me everywhere, around the clock. Communist regimentation was evident in all aspects of life. We were photographed again upon our return to Mexico City, which was the only noncommunist airport offering regular flights to and from Cuba. The mug shots ended up at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.

Nowadays, visitors to the balmy Caribbean island find that though it remains communist in name, Cuba better resembles a mismanaged third-world dictatorship long past its sell-by date and dependant on Western tourists for hard cash. The Goldsteins, for example, were enchanted by Havana but stunned by the sight of underage girls selling their bodies to elderly European and Latin American tourists within view of the ubiquitous police. The militant days of communist puritanism -- and of vows to ignite revolution around the world -- are a faded memory. So are the big plans for industrialization that Castro's Marxist economics czar Carlos Rafael Rodriguez once devised. Roughly half of the country's decrepit plants have closed. Castro, who once derided "bourgeois" tourists, now relies on them. The American dollar is virtually the principal legal tender in the capital.

And so Cuba is back to square one, selling its tropical climate, blue skies and white sandy beaches. Like other third-world travel destinations, Cuba hosts foreign hotel chains and tour operators who develop vacation resorts against the backdrop of grinding poverty. Some hotels have already opened; among them is a Club Med complex. Others are being developed, such as those on the sandy beaches of Cayo Coco island in the north, which features a marina, shopping centers and golf course. A newly opened airport on Cayo Coco receives direct flights from Europe, Canada and Latin America. Foreigners are kept segregated from ordinary Cubans. Anti-Castro Cuban exiles decry this segregation because it allows Castro to keep control and to prevent Western contact. But not all tourists go straight to the beaches. And as more tourists visit, it becomes more difficult to keep them segregated -- something Eastern European communists learned to their detriment as their systems crumbled.

Cuba's political system may be crumbling as well. Such, at least, is the upshot of one recent visitor's analysis. One of the most distinguished former U.S. intelligence officials, Richard Stolz served as the CIA's deputy director for operations (the nation's top spy) in the Reagan and first Bush administrations. Now pursuing a second career as an academic, Stolz can travel to Cuba legally. He has followed Castro's policies since the CIA first detected behind him the thrust of Russian communism, from back before the Bay of Pigs fiasco until the collapse of the Soviet empire. Like most experts, Stolz now sees Castro's revolution as having run its course. Demands for change are strong enough that the system will have to bend or break to meet them.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did $6 billion in oil, military and other annual subsidies the Soviets were providing to Cuba. And when the Russians closed their last listening post in Cuba in January of 2002, Cuba lost the $200 million it received annually for the rent of a military base near Havana. Meanwhile, production and prices for Cuba's main export, sugar, have plummeted. Add to this the fact that Castro himself has become a key element of instability: He recently celebrated his 76th birthday and more than 43 years in power, but his mental capacity -- as U.S. academic experts who have met him over the years put it delicately -- is no longer what it used to be.

Stolz says the sanctions are "especially useless" now that Cuba is no longer a threat. Lifting the travel ban, which is barely enforced, would be a useful gesture, says Stolz, if we want to set U.S. policy on a fresh course for the inevitable transition to the post-Castro era. Robert Pastor, a leading scholar of Latin America and another recent visitor, agrees: "Anyone with the most minimal detachment cannot fail to conclude that the embargo has failed," he says.

Congress, for the most part, concurs. Led by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), the House voted 262-to-167 in July to prohibit the use of U.S. Treasury funds for enforcing travel restrictions. That's despite vigorous arm-twisting by Bush consigliere Karl Rove. In fact, White House interference was so fierce that it prompted Flake and other Republicans to complain publicly. The trouble is that the president himself has vowed that he will veto the measure if, as expected, it is approved by the Senate and ends up on his desk.

The reason for George W. Bush's implacable stand is a matter of craven politics rather than principle. It can be summed up in one word: Florida.

In delicately balanced Florida, where Bush won the presidency with just 537 disputed votes in 2000, anti-Castro Cuban Americans have been a core constituency for the Bush brothers. The most militant leaders in this community insist that now is the time to tighten travel restrictions and to pump more money into the radio and television stations that beam anti-Castro propaganda across the Straits of Florida. To please the exiles in an election year, Bush placed Cuba on the list of state sponsors of terrorism (along with Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Libya). Any softening would risk incurring Cuban Americans' wrath -- and possibly harming brother Jeb's chances for re-election as governor in November. Moreover, in Rove's view, Cuban Americans remain key voters for 2004.

To be sure, the president has done a few things to please other Floridians, such as preventing drilling for oil near Florida's coast and funding the preservation of the Everglades. But the 800,000-plus members of the Cuban-American community remains vital to Bush's re-election strategy. Led by anti-Castro hardliners, the Cubans have tended to vote as a bloc. Cuban-American business leaders have contributed roughly equal amounts to Democratic and Republican campaigns, but the exile community more generally has provided a dependable store of Republican votes. President Bush is determined to keep it that way. As of the end of June, he had made 10 visits to Florida. On a trip last May, he collected almost $2 million at a fundraiser held at the home of Armando Codina, a Cuban-American developer.

But in courting the extremist Cuban exiles, Bush has found himself in the untenable position of defending a policy that's no policy at all. What passes for policy -- "Don't do anything that could be perceived as helping Castro," as Pastor summarizes it -- has allowed the anti-Castro lobby to dictate the terms of security debates going back to John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. But what once seemed genuinely urgent -- we need only recall the grim days of the Cuban missile crisis, the subsequent decades of Soviet military activities on the island and Castro's surreptitious plotting to spread communism throughout Latin America -- now appears irrelevant and absurd. The White House has used right-wing extremists such as John Bolton, undersecretary of state, to portray Cuba as a security threat and a terrorist base. (Bolton's claim that Cuba was engaged in a "limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort" was apparently designed to discredit Jimmy Carter's visit to Havana; it was substantially qualified by Bolton's boss, Colin Powell, a few days later.)

The president, meanwhile, has tried to turn what is essentially a matter of personal political interest into a moral issue, reciting the tired old lines about the struggle for freedom and democracy in Cuba. In fairness, all his predecessors starting with Kennedy took a similar tack. As Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) noted in May, "the hypocrisy extends to Democrat and Republican presidents alike."

But a few things are different this time around. For one thing, the president is out of step with the public. For many contemporary Americans, Cuba is barely a blip on the political horizon -- hardly comparable to its status during the Cold War period, when Cuba was an enemy on the scale of today's Iraq. National polls show a majority of people favor lifting the travel ban: A 2001 poll cited by the Cuba Policy Foundation showed 63 percent in favor and 33 percent against.

More importantly, Bush appears to be out of step with Cuban exile opinion in southern Florida. A recent Bendixen & Associates poll found that slightly more than 50 percent of Cuban Americans favor an end to the travel ban, although 61 percent continue to support the economic embargo. Experts say this reflects the influence of the second generation of Cuban Americans who do not take the hard line of their politically active elders. Since 1994, about 250,000 Cubans, most of them young, have settled in Florida. According to Sergio Bendixen, a veteran Miami pollster who tracks Hispanic issues, most recent arrivals favor easing economic sanctions, but they lack the political clout of older exiles. But even the hard-core, right-wing Cuban American National Foundation, the largest of over 30 such organizations with 50,000 members, has been riddled with ideological disputes. Last year the most radical of its members quit the organization to set up the rival Cuban Liberty Council.

The clincher is that even many staunch Republicans want to see an end to Cuba's isolation. On the crucial vote to lift the travel ban, 73 Republicans defied the White House. They did so after they listened to Rove's stern admonitions against opposing the White House "on an issue the president cares deeply about." Here's one reason they broke ranks: Due to lost tourism and agriculture revenues, the embargo hurts America far more than it hurts Cuba.

Two years ago, Congress eased restrictions, allowing "humanitarian" trade of food and medicine for cash only. That was what permitted North Dakota's Hoeven and his trade delegation to visit Cuba and talk trade. The travelers came away with a prize: about $2 million in sales of North Dakota commodities, including lentils, chickpeas, barley and field peas. "Cuba is a market we haven't had access to in over 40 years," was how North Dakota Farm Bureau President Eric Aasmundstad put it. "We have to have a bit of enthusiasm when we look at the possibility of being able to sell products from North Dakota to the people of Cuba, things that they need very badly."

At a time when markets are shrinking, other states and businesses -- especially farmers -- have taken notice. North Dakota farmers are heading back down to Cuba in September for an agricultural trade fair. The fair has attracted 150 agribusiness outfits from a number of farm states. It spells trouble for the Republicans because it pits the farm states against Florida's Cuban community. "I feel at some point the farm state politics will overwhelm the Florida politics," says Jeff Flake. Another Republican House member, George Nethercutt of Washington, adds: "There are people from all regions of the country who don't think Florida should set the policy, that it ought to be a national policy."

Indeed, lifting the trade and travel embargo could substantially benefit the United States. The Cuba Policy Foundation, headed by former U.S. diplomat Sally Grooms Cowal, has published a study indicating that between 1 million and 6 million Americans would travel to Cuba annually after five years, bringing $1.7 billion to the U.S. travel industry. While the International Trade Commission in 2000 estimated that the embargo was depriving the U.S. economy of up to $1 billion a year, the foundation says the cost is $1.24 billion in agricultural exports alone, plus $3.6 billion in associated economic output.

The forces for change will eventually overwhelm unreasonable opposition and end an anachronistic policy that has failed badly in its four decades of existence. Castro will bow out sooner or later. The United States would do well to begin preparing for the transition now.