Not too long ago, Ricardo Herrero was one of Miami's Cuban-American hard-liners, an ardent supporter of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba as well as the ban on U.S. travel to the communist island. But a half-dozen trips to Cuba during this decade have changed his mind about the latter. "There are no better ambassadors of American culture and American democracy than Americans themselves," says Herrero, 31. Many fellow Cuban Americans who've traveled there, he adds, have come to the same conclusion: they "always come back saying it was a completely eye-opening experience" and have "changed their views because they witnessed firsthand the ineffectiveness of our current policy."
For the first time, there are hard numbers to show that Herrero is far from alone. Last year, a majority of Miami Cuban Americans said they favored dumping tight regulations on Cuban-American travel to Cuba something candidate Barack Obama pledged to do and then did this year as President. And a recent poll found that a remarkable 59% of all Cuban Americans think the 46-year-old ban on all U.S. travel to Cuba should be removed. The survey by Miami-based Bendixen & Associates, the largest Hispanic polling firm, also found that 48% of older and more conservative Cuban exiles known as historicos support lifting the prohibition, up from 32% in 2002. "I think that all exchange is good," says one, 68-year-old Miamian Lala Suarez, who before coming to the U.S. was imprisoned in Cuba by Fidel Castro's government after the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion by militant exiles.
The importance of this attitude shift can't be underestimated. Whenever Congress has tried in the past to strike down the Cuba travel ban even when a majority of Americans said they wanted to get rid of it the biggest obstacle has always been the staunch resistance of politically potent Cuban-American voters. But the newest bill, the freedom to travel to Cuba act, introduced this year in both the House and Senate, suddenly has Cuban-American backing and as a result a decidedly better chance of passing. In a recent statement, Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, a Republican and co-sponsor, called this "a very good time for public diplomacy with Cuba."
One big reason is that while Cuban-American voters may still favor the trade embargo though recent polls indicate support for that is fading fast, too, especially as more young Cuban Americans and recently arrived Cuban immigrants register to vote they no longer see the travel ban as an inseparable component. In fact, they see lifting the ban as a way to throw a bigger ball into Havana's court, one that might oblige current Cuban President Raul Castro, Fidel's younger brother, to release more jailed dissidents or make other reform gestures.
Another is the questionable legality of letting only one group of Americans travel to Cuba. Says Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Cuba Study Group, a Miami-based organization of business and community leaders, "After the loosening of restrictions for Cuban Americans by the Obama Administration, it will be increasingly difficult for the government to respect the liberties of one narrow group while restricting them for a broader group." Democratic U.S. Representative William Delahunt of Massachusetts, who introduced the new travel-to-Cuba bill in the House, where it now has 180 co-sponsors, agrees: "Anyone can go to Vietnam, Iran or North Korea," he says. "Travel is in and of itself an American right; it is not about Cuba-U.S. policy."
Not every Cuban American agrees, of course. Jose Azel, 61, left Cuba at age 13 as part of Operation Pedro Pan, an effort by the Roman Catholic Church that brought 14,000 unaccompanied minors to the U.S. from Cuba in the early 1960s. He has never gone back. "I am a political exile by definition, which means I left because I found the political conditions to be deplorable," says Azel, who today is a senior research associate at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. "Until those conditions change, I will not return." But while he supports the travel ban, Azel recognizes the views of the old guard are changing. "Exiles themselves have changed," he says. "They have moved from a bellicose military approach and understand that now they must come at it from political processes."
Like Azel, the Cuban-American delegation in Congress remains unmoved. For them, the travel ban, like the embargo, remains a valid foreign policy tool that denies resources to the Castros. "If we want to give the regime a lot of money to relieve the pressure, then we could have all the travelers in the world sitting in hotels smoking cigars or drinking Cuba libres," says Democratic New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, who calls that rum-and-Coke drink "an oxymoron." He insists that lifting the travel ban will do nothing to "create democracy or respect for human rights."
By contrast, the bill's proponents believe it could help thaw U.S.-Cuba relations and in turn improve conditions for an eventual democratic transition in Cuba. The measure is supported not only by the travel industry but by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, human-rights groups like Human Rights Watch and policy think tanks like Freedom House, the D.C.-based Cuba Study Group and the Brookings Institute. The White House, careful not to alienate Menendez when it needs every Democratic vote on issues like health care reform, has yet to throw its support behind the bill. But despite Obama's backing of the trade embargo, many observers believe it will be hard for him not to sign a lifting of the travel ban given his own stated policy preference for engaging Cuba.
In the meantime, more Cuban Americans are pouring into Cuba after Obama's relaxation of the travel and remittance rules for those with family on the island. The number of those travelers is expected to hit 200,000 this year, says Armando Garcia, president of Mar Azul Charters in Miami. That would be double the annual flow since 2004, when then President George W. Bush put the restrictions in place. If the travel ban were lifted altogether, recent studies suggest some 3 million Americans would visit Cuba each year. It's uncertain whether they would be effective ambassadors. But after almost a half-century of failed policy, most Cuban Americans have decided that letting Americans travel to Cuba would be more effective than keeping them away.