[Case Study] End the Travel Ban on Cuba
After nearly 50 years of a Cold War-era United States policy that bans its citizens from traveling to the Caribbean island of Cuba, it seemed for a short time that restrictions were going to be finally relaxed. According to an anonymous and widely quoted official, the move was going to come directly from the Obama White House during Congress’ August recess, but would only apply to US academics, religious organizations, and others who apply for special visas. The vast majority of Americans are still barred from visiting Cuba; and any American caught traveling there faces fines of up to $250,000 and up to ten years in prison. (According to AfroCubaWeb only 16 criminal prosecutions are on record between 1983 – 1999, but under the George W. Bush administration prosecutions increased with fines averaging between $6,000 to $10,000. In 2007 the travel website Travelocity.com was fined $182,750 for booking trips between the United States and Cuba.) Paulo Gusmao of the Latin America Working Group, which has long advocated for an end to the travel ban, says that Cuba is the only nation in the world where American citizens are not allowed to visit. U.S. citizens are free to travel to North Korea, Iran, Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but a single trip to Cuba could theoretically lead to a jail sentence.
The Latin America Working Group (LAWG) was founded in 1983, when it was then called the Central America Working Group, and focused primarily on opposing the U.S. role in Central American wars of the time, and “in supporting the negotiated peace settlements that took hold in the region by the 1990s.” According to their website:
Since then, LAWG has gained U.S. support for peace accord implementation aid, over a billion dollars in disaster relief, and the declassification of U.S. documents that shed light on human rights abuses in Latin America and U.S. policy. We have helped to ease restrictions on the sale of food and medicine to Cuba and have helped to change the balance of U.S. aid to Colombia, decreasing military aid and increasing aid for development and for victims of violence.
The LAWG brings together a coalition of over 60 organizations and focuses on six main campaigns:
- Being Better Neighbors towards Latin America
- Stand by Colombia’s Victims of Violence
- End the Travel Ban on Cuba
- Promote Justice for Mexico and the Borderlands
- Monitoring U.S. Military Aid to Latin America
- Help Haiti Rebuild with Rights
For this case study we will focus on just one of the above six campaigns. (The lobbying aspects of this work are carried out by LAWG, a 501(c4) organization, rather than by the Latin America Working Group Education Fund, which has 501(c3) status.)
In response to the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy banned travel to Cuba by US citizens on February 8, 1963. (According to Kennedy’s former aide, Pierre Salinger, the president did not sign the Executive Order until Salinger secured 1,200 of Kennedy’s favorite Cuban cigars, which were made illegal to purchase the following day.) The travel ban is part of a larger trade embargo against Cuba that first came into being in 1960 and was then strengthened in 1962 and 1963. The travel ban was relaxed in 1977 under President Jimmy Carter, but then reinstated in 1982 under Reagan. The trade embargo was reinforced again in 1992 with the Cuban Democracy Act and in 1996 with the Helms–Burton Act.
Daniel Griswold, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Trade Policy Studies, argues in the Guardian that the US trade embargo against Cuba has worked against the country’s own interests without bringing about any positive change in Cuba.
The embargo has been a failure by every measure. It has not changed the course or nature of the Cuban government. It has not liberated a single Cuban citizen. In fact, the embargo has made the Cuban people a bit more impoverished, without making them one bit more free. At the same time, it has deprived Americans of their freedom to travel and has cost US farmers and other producers billions of dollars of potential exports. As a tool of US foreign policy, the embargo actually enhances the Castro government’s standing by giving it a handy excuse for the failures of the island’s Caribbean-style socialism.
Another conservative columnist, The Washington Post’s George Will, recently added:
Today, the U.S. policy of isolating Cuba by means of economic embargoes and travel restrictions serves two Castro goals: It provides an alibi for Cuba’s social conditions, and it insulates Cuba from some of the political and cultural forces that brought down communism in Eastern Europe. The 11th president, Barack Obama, who was born more than two years after Castro seized power, might want to rethink this policy, now that even Castro is having second thoughts about fundamentals.
Furthermore, the Cuban government, which rarely allows its own citizens to travel freely, can simply point at the US travel ban as proof that the United States also restricts the rights of its citizens.
The trade embargo has blemished the United States’ image internationally. “The embargo is the perfect example used by anti-Americans everywhere to expose the hypocrisy of a superpower that punishes a small island while cozying to dictators elsewhere,” writes Moisés Naím in Newsweek. Members of the Canadian House of Commons mocked the passage of Helms-Burton by introducing the “Godfrey-Milliken Bill, which called for the return of property of United Empire Loyalists seized by the American government as a result of the American Revolution.” The European Parliament passed a law in 1996 making it illegal for EU citizens to obey the Helms-Burton act. The United Nations General Assembly has condemned the embargo as a violation of international law every year since 1992. In 2002 it condemned the embargo by 173 votes to 3.
In 2000 the US Congress took a step toward relaxing sanctions against Cuba. The Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act allows cash-only sales to Cuba of US farm products and medical supplies. “Last year, American farmers sold more to the 11.5 million people who live in Cuba than to the 200 million people in Brazil,” writes Griswold. In fact, the United States is Cuba’s main supplier of food and farm products. In 2009 President Obama allowed Cuban Americans to travel to Cuba and send remittances to family members, both without restriction. Recently the White House leaked rumors of an announcement that would ease travel restrictions to Cuba for academics, religious organizations, and sports teams. This is another step toward engagement, but a total lifting of the travel ban (and the complete trade embargo) can only be done by Congress.
On August 24 the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to the House Foreign Affairs Committee to convince them that “it is time to end the unproductive preoccupation with an aging and moribund Communist regime, and begin to lay the groundwork for a U.S. role in the future of Cuba.” Most recently Nokia, AT&T, and Verizon have also lobbied the US government to ease rules that keep them from operating in Cuba.
According to an April 2009 CNN / Opinion Research Corporation poll 64% of 1,023 Americans surveyed think the U.S. should lift its travel ban on Cuba, while 71% thought the U.S. should reestablish diplomatic relations with the island nation.
Strategy and Use of Digital Media
Vanessa Kritzer of the Latin America Working Group notes thats the group’s use of social media as part of its campaign strategy took off in the lead-up to planning the “CubaGo! National Day of Action” which brought together “Cuba policy advocates, Cuban Americans, world travelers, agricultural and business representatives, policy wonks, students, church activists, salsa lovers, cigar aficionados, and friends from all over the country” to lobby for the right to travel to Cuba:
This event happened on September 30, 2009. On that day, 65 community leaders came to DC, where they started with a briefing with six members of Congress in the morning and then spent the day lobbying key house and senate offices that had not yet decided to support the bills to end the travel ban. Simultaneously, there was a massive call-in effort, which was comprised of 38 officially registered CubaGO! events, from 24 different states, where phone calls were made by those attending events or participating in phone banks, and by passers-by at tables on college campuses, churches, and other public venues, as well as individuals making calls via email prompts on the day of from our 28 partner organizations that contacted their list serves.
Part of what got the momentum going on the campaigns on the internet was the specific end date of getting as many people on board before September 30th. Many people joined as a way to get in on that real, tangible action, not just a vague cause. And on the other hand, the social networking and our email blasts were effective in organizing people to do phone banks and spread the word about the event. We also used the “event making” tool on Democracy in Action, which helped people to plan their CubaGO! day fiestas/call-ins, get it up on a website where people could RSVP, and the tool allowed LAWG to track who was doing what where.
The Latin America Working Group uses a number of tools and platforms to spread information and galvanize mobilization. Their main website is built with Non-Profit Soapbox, which uses the Joomla content management system. The main organization has accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, MySpace, and Change.org.
There are also specific social networking accounts for the End the Travel Ban on Cuba campaign. Their Facebook page currently has 22,740 followers who receive updates, post related content, and add their support by “liking” posts from the End the Travel Ban on Cuba blog. There is also a Facebook Causes page with nearly 28,000 members. Eleven of those members donated a total of $266 to the campaign. The @EndtheTravelBan Twitter account currently has 354 followers. Kritzer explains that so far the group has focused on facilitating conversation on Facebook rather than with Twitter.
Some Facebook posts ask their supporters to become involved in a particular activity. For example, on August 23 the Washington Post ran a forum/poll asking its readers for their opinions about legalizing travel to Cuba. The End the Travel Ban on Cuba Facebook page announced to its followers that “this seems like a good place for us to make our voices heard. Join us in participating and let’s make clear what we think!” Over 100 people “liked” the post and 23 left comments. (There were 87 responses to the Washington Post poll.) Other times the page frames news items as questions. For example, on July 21 the Facebook page links to an article from The Havana Note, adding the note: “Some developments in US-Cuba relations, maybe? What are your thoughts on Cuba releasing political prisoners, Spain and the Catholic Church’s involvment, and potential US action?” 48 Facebook users offered their opinions.
On February 23, 2010, U.S. Congressmen Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Jerry Moran of Kansas introduced bill H.R. 4645, which would remove obstacles to legal sales of United States agricultural commodities to Cuba and to end travel restrictions on all Americans to Cuba. The Latin America Working Group responded the same day with an “e-alert” titled “Our Best Chance to End the Travel Ban in 2010,” which implores readers to call or write their house representatives to seek their co-sponsorship of the bill. (So far the bill has 76 cosponsors, but a bill with identical travel ban language has 179 cosponsors; there are some overlaps in co-sponsorship of the two bills.)
The e-alert reminds readers that the bill will require at least 218 votes in the House and a supermajority of 60 in the Senate. In addition to putting a permanent end to the travel ban, according to the blog post, the bill will also create more jobs in the United States by increasing agricultural exports to Cuba. Readers are directed to a web application maintained by Salsa Labs which easily allows readers to send a template message in support of H.R. 4645 by merely entering their zip code and contact information.
On June 30 the bill arrived to a vote by the House Agriculture Committee. Audio from the proceedings were streamed live on the Agricultural Committee’s website while the Latin America Working Group added their own coverage via their @EndtheTravelBan Twitter account. On July 30 at 3:44 p.m. they published the following on their Twitter account: “Motion to report bill to floor with favorable recommendation: 25 yeas, 20 nos. H.R. 4645 passes Ag Committee!!!!!!!!!!”
Just a few days after the bill passed through the Agriculture Committee the Latin America Working Group published another “e-alert” to ask their readers and coalition members to express their thanks directly to the representatives that voted in favor of the bill. It also encouraged readers to register their disappointment with those who voted against the bill. This is a smart strategy to both recognize the progress made in the campaign and also to sustain momentum among the representatives and within the larger movement.
A few weeks later the Latin America Working Group partnered with Change.org to create a petition to the US House of Representatives to “restore the right to travel to Cuba.” The petition has been signed by over 12,343 individuals. With each signature an email is automatically sent to the signatory’s Representative. The petition has been shared 664 times on Facebook, 77 times on Twitter, and 356 times via email. Nearly 2,500 other petitions have also been published on Change.org; it’s reasonable to believe that the flood of automatic letters to representatives have diluted both their message and impact. In future posts we will attempt to generally measure the impact of such automated petition letters to public officials.
In their blog post announcing the petition on Change.org, the Latin America Working Group also informed readers of the latest news related to the wider campaign to end the travel ban:
64 percent of Cuban Americans told the University of Miami that they support the unilateral lifting of travel restrictions for all U.S. citizens. The most prominent opposition figures in Cuba, eager for contact with U.S. travelers, called on Congress to open travel without delay. In negotiations with the Catholic Church, Cuba’s agreed to release scores of political prisoners. Editorial boards of newspapers large and small in Texas, Florida, North Carolina, and beyond are near unanimous: the time to end the travel ban is now. And just last week, Congresswoman Kathy Castor of the Tampa area came out in support of freedom to travel, the first representative from Florida to do so. And on, and on, and on. Today, momentum is on our side; but to we need you to stay active and engaged through Congress’ August recess and into the fall if we’re to accomplish our ultimate goal.
By tradition and law the US Congress is in recess for the entire month of August, but that didn’t keep the LAWG from continuing its advocacy to put an end to the ban. On August 9 the Latin America Working Group – along with many other academic, religious, trade, and policy organizations – sent an open letter to President Obama urging him to “respond to recent positive actions in Cuba, particularly the announcement of the release of all of the remaining political prisoners arrested in 2003,” by removing additional travel restrictions to Cuba that were implemented under George W. Bush. The letter also emphasizes their “strong support for legislation pending in Congress relating to travel and agricultural sales to Cuba.”
In order for Bill HR 4645 to reach a House vote it must first pass through House Committee on Foreign Affairs (HCFA), which is chaired by Howard Berman. On Monday at the Reuters Washington Summit Berman said that he was dedicated to easing restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba, but that he wouldn’t bring up H.R. 4645 for a vote unless there were enough votes for it to pass. “I’m not going to bring it up to lose.”
Two days later and it was announced it that the HCFA will consider H.R. 4645 on Wednesday, September 29. Given Berman’s earlier comment at the Reuters Washington Summit it seems that there might be enough support in the HCFA for the bill to pass through to a general House vote later this year. Immediately following the announcement LAWG published an e-alert asking supporters to check to see if their representatives serve on the Committee of Foreign Affairs, and if so, to send them an email in support of H.R. 4645.
If the bill passes through the House, Paulo Gusmao of the Latin America Working Group says he is confident that it will garner the 60 necessary votes in the Senate and the support of President Obama. The result of the vote in the House of Representatives depends on those 30 – 40 Representatives who are still undecided about how they will vote. Their names and districts are all listed on a single blog post that implores readers to convince their representatives to vote in favor of the bill. Whether US citizens will be permitted to legally travel to Cuba depends, for example, on whether the residents of Lancaster, Ohio can convince Congressman Steve Austria to support the bill. If they are successful, everyday Americans might be able to book flights to Havana within a matter of months.
What do you feel has been the greatest success of the campaign so far?
Its ability to bring together such a broad and diverse coalition ranging from grassroots advocacy organizations to business-minded groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Or, Amnesty International and the Cato Institute. The strength of this campaign comes from the agreement on certain limited issues from the entire span of the spectrum.
Is there anything that you would do differently in the design of the campaign if you were to do it over again?
The campaign is ongoing, but it might have been useful to reach out more to young people since they are very active within the social media world, and because the young people in this country are, in some ways, the most affected by limitations on travel to Cuba, e.g. study abroad programs, sport and cultural exchange.
What have been the greatest obstacles related to the use of digital media in the campaign?
It has been difficult to create an echo chamber that projects broadly. This has made it difficult to cultivate new supporters/activists.
What recommendation(s) would you give to other groups who want to use digital media to advocate for the passage of a particular bill?
Be willing to collaborate with everybody. By doing so, a campaign is able to speak to the concerns of policymakers from across the political spectrum. Also, diversity amongst a coalition opens the gates to new advocates in geographic areas largely unknown to one particular organization.