United States Cuba Policy & Business Blog

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


FREEDOM TO TRAVEL TO CUBA-- (Senate - October 05, 2009)
Mr. DORGAN . Mr. President, last Friday the New York Times had an article which caught my eye, and the headline was the following: ``October New York Philharmonic Trip to Cuba is Off.'' I want to talk for a moment about this. I was extraordinarily disappointed to read this because this is an issue of the freedom to travel by the American people, specifically, the freedom to travel to Cuba.
This country has had an embargo against the country of Cuba for a long while. Cuba is a Communist country. Fidel Castro has poked his finger in the eye of America for a long time, so we have had an embargo for a long time. Part of the way to injure the Castro regime, presumably, as a part of this embargo is to prevent the American people from traveling to Cuba. The American people can travel to Communist China, to Communist Vietnam, to North Korea, but the American people are considered taking a criminal act if they travel to Cuba. There are some exceptions; the U.S. Treasury Department gives licenses to travel for certain kinds of educational and cultural things, and for trade.
So the New York Philharmonic orchestra was going to Cuba, but had to cancel the trip. Daniel Wakin wrote about it in the New York Times last Friday October 1, 2009. The reason I wanted to mention this is because it is almost unbelievable what we are still doing with respect to our travel policy with Cuba.
Senator Enzi and I have a piece of legislation that removes all travel restrictions with respect to travel to Cuba. We have over 30 Senators who are cosponsors of that legislation, but while we are waiting to pass our legislation, we are going through this nonsense of having the Federal Government and the Treasury Department tell us who can and who cannot travel, restricting the liberty and the freedom of the American people. It is outrageous, in my judgment.
Trips like the one the New York Philharmonic planned to Havana are not unusual. These kinds of trips happen all of the time. In 1959, at the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the New York Philharmonic played in Moscow. It is a reasonably good thing, in my judgment, to be able to extend our culture and the hand of friendship through music.
One of the reasons I was especially interested in this is that the New York Philharmonic visited North Korea last year, and I asked conductor Loren Maazel and Zarin Mehta, President of the Philharmonic's board, to come and speak to our caucus. They described to us their performances in North Korea. They said the applause went on and on, even after they left the stage. What a great way to exchange with another country, to extend cultural enlightenment and to share with other countries. Again, the New York Philharmonic orchestra played in North Korea last year, but cannot play in Cuba without a special license.
The New York Philharmonic is going to Communist Vietnam this month.
Yes, it is a Communist country. So, too, is North Korea, as is China, as is Russia. But the New York Philharmonic orchestra has no difficulty being able to play music in those countries because there are no travel restrictions with respect to those countries.
Let me describe, if I might, the absurdity of all of this. The Office of Foreign Assets Control is a little agency in the Treasury Department that is in charge of granting licenses that, under certain conditions, will allow you to travel to Cuba. The license they decided to allow the New York Philharmonic to go to Cuba and play their music did not include allowing the benefactors of the Philharmonic to travel with them and the Philharmonic decided that was unacceptable. Frankly, I understand why it is unacceptable for them. That doesn't make any sense to me.
The OFAC regulations says
Unless otherwise authorized, any person subject to U.S. jurisdiction who engages in any travel-related transaction in Cuba violates the regulations.
That is unbelievable to me. That has been around, I think, for 40 years, 50 years.
Let me give examples of some people who have traveled to Cuba who our Federal Government has chased and harassed. By the way, this little agency called OFAC, somewhere in the bowels of the U.S. Treasury Department, the Office of Foreign Assets Control, is supposed to be tracking terrorist money, protecting us from terrorists. Instead they have been busy chasing people who go to Cuba. In the previous administration, up to a quarter of their time was spent trying to track Americans who were under suspicion of taking a vacation in Cuba. It is pretty absurd, it seems to me.
This is Joan Slote. She was a senior citizen and bicyclist who was fined $7,630. Do you know why? Because she joined a Canadian bicycling group that took a bicycle tour of Cuba and, as a result of that, her government--under the previous administration--tracked her down, threatened to attach her Social Security checks, and fined her $7,630 for riding a bicycle in Cuba.
Here is a picture of a woman I have met named Joni Scott. Joni Scott's transgression? She is a very religious woman, a devout Christian. She went to Cuba to hand out free Bibles on the streets of Cuba and her government tried to track her down and fine her $10,000 for handing out free Bibles on the streets of Cuba because she violated the travel ban. The travel ban, that means restricting the liberty of the American people. We do not ban travel to other countries. We do not do it for communist China, for communist Russia, communist Vietnam--just for Cuba.
This is SGT Carlos Lazo. A number of years ago, Carlos Lazo went and fought in the country of Iraq, wearing America's uniform. He is a Cuban-American. He was in Iraq as a fighting soldier for this country. He won the Bronze Star for gallantry. He had two children in Cuba, one of whom was sick, and his government that he fought for and won the Bronze Star for, told him he was not able to travel to Cuba to see his own sick child. Hat shows how unbelievably wrong this policy is.
Let me describe what the policy is about traveling to other countries. The rules say:
All transactions ordinarily incident to travel to or from Iran ..... are permitted.
If you want to go to Iran, no problem; that is not an issue. You are welcome to go to Iran.
If you want to see Kim Jong-il in North Korea, it is not a problem. The rules say:
U.S. passports are valid for travel in North Korea and individuals do not need U.S. Government permission to travel there.
Here are the 10 Presidents we have had since we decided to punish the American people with a travel ban to Cuba--10 Presidents. You talk about failure--it is one thing just to fail; it is another thing to insist that failure is a good thing for 50 years. This Government of Cuba has lasted through 10 Presidents. What we have decided to do is, over all these years, to ban travel to Cuba by the American people.
You can go to Cuba in certain capacities. You can go in certain educational capacities, or cultural capacities, provided you get a license. I have been to Cuba. I have been to Havana. I have visited with government officials, I visited with all the dissidents in Cuba. Many of my colleagues here in Congress have undoubtedly traveled to Cuba. But we have a licensing requirement with respect to travel to Cuba.
We also had this trade embargo for all of these years. I was one who, some years ago, lifted that embargo slightly to be able to sell food and medicine into Cuba. I think it is fundamentally immoral to use food as a weapon. We had an embargo against selling food to Cuba. The Europeans were selling into Cuba, the Canadians were selling into Cuba; the American farmers were told you can't sell food into Cuba. As a result of my amendment, the amendment I offered with then Senator Ashcroft, that amendment opened just a bit the sale of food into Cuba and allowed medicine to go into Cuba as well, but that is the only thing that has happened in all of these years.
Senator Enzi and I have offered a bipartisan piece of legislation that would allow travel, allow the American people the freedom to travel in Cuba.
My colleagues in this Chamber talk a lot about freedom. What about the freedom of the American people to travel? Why is it we have decided to punish the Cuban regime by restricting Americans' freedoms?
I come back to the basic proposition. That is, one of the great music groups in the world, the New York Philharmonic, which has played in North Korea, in Russia, and is about to play in Vietnam, is told: Here are the circumstances and conditions in which you can play in Cuba. By the way, they are onerous. The New York Philharmonic found those circumstances and conditions unacceptable and I understand why.
I am writing to the Office of Assets Control to see if we could not get them to think straight a bit. It makes no sense at all to decide that this kind of exchange is unworthy. Does anybody really think that having the New York Philharmonic play beautiful music in the city of Havana, in the country of Cuba, is in any way going to threaten anybody? Wouldn't it perhaps do at least what it did for those who were able to experience that wonderful music in North Korea? I saw the photographs, I saw the video. I believe ``60 Minutes'' did a piece on it, that showed how unbelievably they were responded to by the North Korean people who heard them, who listened to the New York Philharmonic. Wouldn't that be the same with respect to Cuba?
Why on Earth should our government be interpreting this travel restriction in the way that is designed to try to restrict rather than expand these opportunities? I have seen how OFAC, over these years, tries to find ways to tighten, find ways to create opportunity to restrict travel. That makes no sense to me at all.
When I read this, this weekend, I thought what on Earth could they be thinking of? Where is the deep reservoir of common sense that you should expect from people who are confronted with this issue? When confronted with the issue of granting a license to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to represent our country in doing concerts in Havana, why should OFAC be trying to find ways to make that too restrictive for the Philharmonic and its benefactors to travel to Cuba and do what they had intended to do?
This kind of opportunity to connect with other countries has a long history. I showed a picture of the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, performing in the Great Hall in the Moscow Conservatory. Let me show that again. It raises the question about common sense. If we are able, in 1959, with all of the tensions with Moscow and the Soviet Union at that point, and we sent our New York Philharmonic Orchestra in an exchange and Leonard Bernstein conducted, and they, too, were greeted with long, sustained applause because people were so appreciative of them being in Moscow; if that has been the case--and it has been in every circumstance and last year especially it was with respect to the appearance in North Korea--if that is the case, why on Earth would our Government do anything other than encourage the New York Philharmonic to do the concert in Havana, instead of discourage it, instead of finding ways to tighten this down so the New York Philharmonic and their benefactors had decided they simply couldn't go under those conditions?
Common sense ought to apply on this issue of the liberty and the freedom of the American people to travel. There ought not be travel restrictions to Cuba at all. They ought to be gone and we ought to pass the Dorgan -Enzi bill that strikes the travel restrictions with respect to Cuba. We have not yet found a way to get it to the floor. When we do, I guarantee we will have sufficient votes on the floor of the Senate to offer the American people the freedom they should have had in the last 50 or 60 years, and that is freedom to travel. In this case that freedom has been taken from them and it is outrageous.
I mentioned Joan Slote. When I became involved in this issue of what this embargo costs our country, I was furious to find an elderly woman riding a bicycle in Cuba and then fined $7,300 by her government.
By the way, when she came back, her son had brain cancer so she wasn't home, she was attending to her son who had brain cancer down in California, and she didn't get the mailing to her house and then they threatened to take her Social Security away. Why? Because she was suspected of vacationing in Cuba, riding a bicycle with a Canadian bicycle group.
All of this I think is nuts and I hope at some point the New York Philharmonic will be given the license, with their benefactors, to go down and do the concert in Havana, Cuba; do the concert there. In the meantime, I hope the Office of Foreign Asset Control will take a look at this and make a new decision. They have the right to make a better decision. In my judgment they didn't make the right decision here. I hope they overturn that decision. I have written them a letter today asking them to do that. Let's use a little common sense here.
Following that, I hope Senator Enzi and I will get our legislation on the floor of the Senate and remove the travel restrictions that now impede the freedom of the American people to travel to Cuba.
The country of Cuba has been a thorn in our side for a long time; I understand that. But attempting to punish the leaders of Cuba by punishing the American people makes no sense at all. That is exactly what has happened since the early 1960s. My hope is that some day, despite the news last Friday that the New York Philharmonic has canceled this trip--my hope is some day very soon we will have a policy that doesn't have anybody canceling trips because they didn't get their license to travel. My hope is anybody can travel anywhere, representing the best of this country.
The New York Philharmonic is a wonderful cultural ambassador--to the Soviet Union, and North Korea, and Vietnam, all communist countries--and it can also be with Cuba. I hope that will happen soon.
I yield the floor and I suggest the absence of a quorum