Since a US travel and trade embargo was imposed in 1960, Americans have been restricted from travel to Cuba without a license from the US government issued only for charitable or humanitarian purposes. Americans have traveled to Cuba illegally by going through other countries but in recent years the Bush administration has enforced restrictions even on licensed travel, cutting the flow of Americans to Cuba to a trickle.
If HR 654 co-sponsored by Charles Rangel, the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, passes the House and Senate in the next couple months, Americans may finally have the right to visit this enchanting island. The bill won't lift the trade embargo or allow American citizens to bring back souveniers. President Bush has threatened to veto any legislation weakening the travel ban or the embargo against Cuba. But finally, there seems to be bipartisan support as well as popular American support to end the travel ban.
We have made peace with Vietnam, Germany, and Russia but we can't seem to make peace with our hemispheric brothers and sisters. It has become a pissing match between the US Government and Fidel Castro. Indeed, this billboard posted on the north shore of Havana, facing the US reads, "Senor imperialists, we have absolutely no fear of you".
Every other citizen of the world has the right to travel to Cuba. If caught traveling illegally to Cuba, Americans can be levied up to $65,000 in fines. Indeed, a San Diego woman who traveled to Cuba with a Canadian bicycling group received a fine of $10,000. Even with a travel license, it is illegal for Americans traveling to Cuba to bring back anything except original art. Not even a T-shirt. Bringing back a Cuban cigar is a felony.
In 2005, I traveled with 48 other Americans to build playgrounds in Cuba. It’s Just the Kids obtained a license to be used from 2003 to 2007 for trips to Cuba for this sole purpose. (Bill Hauf, a San Diegan, had noticed on a trip to Cuba that the children had little in the way of playgrounds and things to play with, and It's Just the Kids was born.) Volunteers built three state of the art playgrounds in 2003, four playgrounds in 2005. The Treasury Department interfered with the license in 2004 such that the group was unable to go. Again, when we planned to build three more playgrounds in 2006 the Treasury Department placed restrictions that made the project unfeasible. It took 49 of us to build four playgrounds in a week in 2005. At the last minute in April 2006, the US government would allow only nine volunteers four days to build three playgrounds, of course an impossible task and the trip was canceled.
The 2005 trip was in incredible people-to-people project for all of us. We had to sign an agreement with the US government to work every day to ensure we wouldn't have time to spend money in the Cuban economy. We worked our butts off in the sweltering heat to finish early and have time to see the beautiful, albeit crumbling architecture and take in the nightlife. But it was the experience with the people that was the most amazing.
In each community a piece of vacant land was donated for our project, and Cubans were selected by the community to work alongside us.
With this piece of land and raw materials shipped from the US, working together with the Cubans, we assembled beautiful playgrounds. They prepared our lunch of good Cuban food every day and brought out the music to play while we worked.
At the end of one of our projects, the community held a program attended by the people and children of the community. The American and Cuban flags were set at the same level and the American anthem played following the Cuban anthem. There wasn't a dry eye on either side that day. The Cubans made it clear they had no issue with the American people, only with the American government and policy.
Best of all were the children.
They came after school to watch the progress of their playground, let us take pictures, bring flowers to the volunteers, and sing.
And when we opened the first playground, they rushed in to enjoy. It was another day of teary eyes for many of us adults.
So let us hope those who represent us in Washington will deliberate this current bill beyond politics and at least lift the travel restrictions.