Earlier this month, entertainers Jay-Z and Beyoncé were given a license by the US government to travel to Cuba. Because it is not otherwise legal for Americans to travel to Cuba, this trip was only permitted as a "cultural exchange" by the US Treasury Department. Many suspect that the permission was granted at least partly due to the fame, wealth, and political connections of the couple.
Some Members of Congress who continue to support the failed Cuba embargo demanded that the Administration explain why these two celebrities were allowed to visit Cuba. The trip looked suspiciously like tourism, they argued in a letter to the White House, and American tourism is still not allowed in Cuba. They were photographed eating at the best restaurants, dancing, and meeting with average Cubans, which these Members of Congress frowned on.
Perhaps it is true that this couple used their celebrity status and ties to the White House to secure permission to travel, but the real question is, why can't the rest of us go?
The Obama administration has lifted some of the most onerous restrictions on travel to Cuba imposed under the previous Bush administration, but for the average American, travel to the island is still difficult if not impossible.
However, even those who are permitted to go to Cuba are not allowed to simply engage in tourist activities − to spend their money as they wish or relax on a beach.
The US government demands that the few Americans it allows to travel to Cuba only engage in what it deems "purposeful travel," to "support civil society in Cuba; enhance the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people; and help promote their independence from Cuban authorities." They must prove that they maintain a full-time schedule of educational activities, according to Treasury guidelines for "people-to-people" travel.
Leave it to the federal government to make the prospect of visiting that sunny Caribbean island sound so miserable.
The reason the US so severely restricts and scripts the activities of the few Americans allowed to travel to Cuba is that it believes travel must promote the goal of taking "important steps in reaching the widely shared goal of a Cuba that respects the basic rights of all its citizens."
Although I have no illusions about the Cuban government – or any government for that matter − it is ironic that the US chose to locate a prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba because the indefinite detention and torture that took place there would have been illegal on US soil. Further, the US government continues to hold more than 100 prisoners there indefinitely even though they have not been found guilty of a crime and in fact dozens are "cleared for release" but not allowed to leave.
Does the administration really believe that the rest of the world is not annoyed by its "do as we say, not as we do" attitude?
We are told by supporters of the Cuba embargo and travel ban that we must take such measures to fight the communists in charge of that country. Americans must be prohibited from traveling to Cuba, they argue, because tourist dollars would only be used to prop up the unelected Castro regime. Ironically, our restrictive travel policies toward Cuba actually mirror the travel policies of the communist countries past and present. Under communist rule in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere it was only the well-connected elites who were allowed to travel overseas – people like Jay-Z and Beyoncé. The average citizen was not permitted the right.
Although the current administration's slight loosening of the restrictions is a small step in the right direction, it makes no sense to continue this nearly half-century old failed policy. Freedom to travel is a fundamental right. Restricting this fundamental right in the name of human rights is foolish and hypocritical.