By ALFREDO PRIETO*
HAVANA TIMES, March 19 – The serpent, at last, has bit itself on the tail. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the US Department of Treasury has turned back the clock to the Clinton era by authorizing Cuban Americans to visit family in Cuba once a year under a general license.
The step was prompted by the Omnibus Appropriation Act FY 2009, passed by the US Congress. Among other things, the Act expressly prohibits the federal government from using funds to enforce the regulations of an executive order signed by Bush that fateful summer of 2004.
Those regulations limited visits to Cuba by Cuban Americans to once every three years and imposed various restrictions incompatible with the traditional concept of family on both sides of the Straits.
Undoubtedly the bill is of major political significance as it dealt a hard blow to the ultra-right exiles and offered a gesture in synch with the majority of Miami residents, especially the moderates and the more recent Cuban immigrants.
The old-guard is protesting; but the rest are celebrating the end of obstinacy and punishment. According to a December 2008 poll by Florida International University (FIU), 66% of those polled in the Miami-Dade area favored travel to Cuba. The survey demonstrated that the historic hard-line position of no travel and no remittances – a symbol of some strange sense of rebellious militancy- is yielding to alternative views and attitudes. (Note that among poll respondents between 18 and 44 years of age, 70% favored restriction free travel and 70% favored family remittances).
For Cubans on the island, officially unaware of the news since it has been ignored by the local press, the change formalizes previously existing contacts on many levels of society and culture.
In fact, although Cubans were hurt by these recently abolished restrictions, relationships between the two shores have an osmosis-like quality, penetrating barriers in a million ways, to the dismay of their builders.
It is not a secret to anyone that for the last four years many Cuban Americans have visited the island illegally through third countries– Mexico, Bahamas or Canada–, a fact that led Cuban authorities to not stamp their passports when they pass through customs at Jose Martí International Airport. Of course this practice applies to all US citizens and is taken in hopes that the travel ban will one day be lifted and because travel is a human right.
Although the change is welcome, it comes at a time of economic crisis that has choked incomes, deflated living standards and has threatened the so-called American dream itself.
Although Cubans on both sides of the sea border appear to be rising to the occasion to resolve their own problems and achieve their goals -one characteristic that unites them-, whether there’s a rush of visitors to the island remains to be seen. This time will probably be less dramatic than in 2000, when around 124,000 Cuban-Americans traveled to Havana via charter planes, boosting not only the state’s income but also benefiting the emergent self employment sector so important to the daily life of many people.
This new legislation is definitely a relief for the heart. But it is not the nation’s salvation. The Cuban economy has already gone beyond the days when it relied on tourism and foreign money.
*Alfredo Prieto is a Cuban essayist and editor living in Havana.