Commentary: Lifting Cuba travel ban protects our rights

It's easy to see why anyone would think that a recent U.S. Senate bill to end the ban on Americans traveling to Cuba is a guise to loosen the embargo against the island.

It's true that the measure is more than what it seems, but not for the reasons one might think. Instead, its hidden depth says more about us as a nation than it could ever say about Cuba.

The bill specifically would forbid the president to "regulate or prohibit, directly or indirectly, travel to or from Cuba by United States citizens or legal residents." It also repeals all previous travel restrictions.

"In essence, it says it's not the place of government to tell people where they can and cannot travel," says Philip Peters, a Cuba expert with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., and former State Department official under Ronald Reagan.

The president, Peters notes, would have to justify his actions if he ever wanted to reinstate the restrictions. Few acts could better highlight the difference between the two countries.

There are many reasons to empathize with arguments on both sides of the Cuba issue. For all their differences, however, the arguments often have one thing in common: they are laden with emotion. There's retributive anger on one side, misguided compassion on the other.

And through the decades of debate, we've been so focused on Cuba that we've overlooked our own principles, trapping them in the abyss that lies between opposing passions, like a child forgotten in the heat of a messy divorce. In more than 40 years of discourse, I've heard only one argument solid enough to justify the impediment of legitimate business activity and an individual's natural–born inclination to explore the world.

Interestingly enough, it came from our very own government, which decades ago successfully argued that it had the right to deny its citizens trade and travel as a matter of national security.

The current policy ultimately derives its legal powers from the Trading with the Enemy Act and President Harry Truman's declaration in 1950 of a national emergency to stem the threatening spread of communism. As a result, any justification for the embargo and travel ban centers on whether Cuba poses a threat sufficient enough to curtail our rights.

For more than three decades, the answer was an obvious "yes," as Cuba had a powerful military alliance with the Soviet Union and was spreading its army worldwide. Today, the answer is less obvious. Cuba still gravitates toward inimical governments, such as Russia and Venezuela, but we trade with and travel to those countries.

Fearing that the national–security argument could be used arbitrarily and perpetually by the presidency, Congress in the mid 1970s more clearly defined the president's powers in impeding economic activity. It created procedural requirements to ensure that any national–emergency declarations be based on real threats and to ensure that a declaration would last only as long as the threat exists. However, to assure passage, the reforms applied only to future declarations, effectively exempting the Cuban embargo.

The upshot: When it comes to Cuba, our government can perpetually impede free trade and individual liberties without a need to justify it to the very people whose rights are being curtailed.

That, of course, is how things are done in Cuba. Over here, as the bill demonstrates, some of us still believe in tempering such state powers – especially when the government in question is our own.

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