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Opinion: Loosen travel restrictions to Cuba to encourage reform from within

Even landlocked Coloradans have an interest in expanding contact with the island nation

Colorado has distinctive connections to Cuba that make the status of U.S-Cuban relations and the current repression of peaceful protests on the island of considerable relevance to our state.  Colorado businesses have longstanding interest in trade opportunities with Cuba and Several delegations of Coloradans visit the island each year and engage in cultural and humanitarian exchanges.

Anna Alejo

It was a Coloradan, Dr. Steve Berman, who co-led the first-of-its-kind delegation of U.S. doctors to Cuba in a collaborative initiative to improve child health care in both countries. At a time of aggressive U.S. expansionism, it was a U.S. Senator from Colorado, Henry M. Teller, who sponsored the amendment in 1898 that prohibited annexation of Cuba.

A historic moment of opportunity in Cuba has arrived, with a movement led overwhelmingly by young Cubans of color, many from the creative class of artists and writers.  While the future will be for Cubans to decide, the United States and Colorado can play a constructive role.

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When Fidel Castro marched victoriously on the historic city of Santiago in January 1959, he spoke of a revolution “characterized precisely by its newness, by the fact that it will do things that have never been done before.” As Ada Ferrer recounts in her exquisitely written book, Cuba, An American History, this statement was intended to mean that the Revolution would not be like the ones that preceded it in Cuba.

The Revolution did differentiate itself from the past by virtue of its longevity (spanning now over six decades), expropriation of private assets, and an anemic state-controlled economy. And, sadly, it also proved more effective than previous regimes in entrenching one-person rule and suppression of dissent, including the imprisoning, exiling and killing of charismatic voices of opposition.  

This intolerance for dissent has attracted renewed attention with the government’s response last July and November to the protests of artists and others calling for reform. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the European Union have condemned the arrest, abuse and continued detention of hundreds of peaceful protesters, including many under the age of 18, and harassment of hundreds of others. Many of the protesters currently on trial face up to 30 years in prison.

And so the question arises of how the U.S. should respond. First, we need to reframe our approach, recognizing as historian Louis A. Pérez has written, that “much of what passes for ‘Cuba Foreign Relations’ is in fact Cuba depicted as a country acted upon and without agency; Cuba as object of history, not a subject … as colony of Spain, as client of the United States, as proxy for the Soviet Union … in function of the history of another country.”

With this in mind, let us consider the role of the U.S. embargo of Cuba which has been at the center of much debate. The embargo — more specifically the portions codified in statute — is unlikely to be lifted anytime soon by a deeply divided Congress. Although with limited exceptions to the embargo for export of food, medicine, and medical supplies, the U.S. has remained among Cuba’s top trading partners over the past two decades. 

During several trips to Cuba, I have heard from many Cuban entrepreneurs who would like to see the embargo lifted. But their primary focus is a passionate dedication to being contributors to a diverse economy and social vitality that improves the lives of all Cubans. This is their vision of the future, led by Cubans, and their most significant frustration in achieving that future is with the policies and practices of their own government. 

The Cuban government has recently taken some steps to expand the private sector, authorizing hundreds of private small and medium-sized businesses and advancing a proposal to allow, for the first time, direct foreign investment in those businesses.  But stifling restrictions remain on size, categories and expansion of private enterprises; and the Cuban government has authority without appeal under its “Decree Law 149” to confiscate businesses that have engaged in “improper enrichment”.  

Beyond condemnations and sanctions, U.S. policy should focus on supporting the aspirations of Cubans, both those artists who are bravely raising their voices and those laboring in entrepreneurial enterprises. 

The Biden administration shared recently that it has “hit the pause button” on U.S. policy toward Cuba. But the U.S. should move forward in loosening travel restrictions and limits on remittances in support of the Cuban people, as candidate Biden committed to do.

Even as the domestic politics in Florida have shifted significantly in favor of a harder line on Cuba, it is worth noting that two-thirds of Cuban-Americans in South Florida support resumption of airline travel from the U.S. to all regions of the island and approximately half of Cuban-American families send remittances to their relatives. 

While there are valid concerns about the Cuban military’s role in remittances, the primary beneficiaries are the two-thirds of Cubans who rely on assistance from family abroad, including many of Cuba’s entrepreneurs who represent the best hope for a transition to a free market economy.

The time has come for the Biden administration to lift its finger from the “pause button” and not further delay targeted and urgent actions to support the Cuban people.


Anna Alejo, of Denver, led 10X10KCuba in Colorado, an initiative to support Cuban entrepreneurs, and is a board member of World Denver. She travels frequently to Cuba.


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