Dorgan: Going on Vacation in Cuba? That’s Downright Criminal! Or Is It?

Posted April 17, 2013 at 1:03pm

It is not every day that CNN and E! News can agree on a lead story. But then, political opportunism and celebrity gossip don’t often share the same headlines.

After video surfaced showing entertainers Beyonce and Jay-Z enjoying a visit to Havana, Cuba, the usual suspects have responded with political sideshow.

Several legislators are having a seizure demanding to know how the couple got to Cuba. They’ve whipped themselves into a full lather: Who authorized it? Who in our government is accountable for the approval of this trip? Don’t they know that our country has a 50-year-old policy prohibiting American citizens from visiting the island nation?

Jay-Z responded to the controversy with an “Open Letter” in the form of a song that does not apologize for his visit.

This controversy finally puts a spotlight on our government’s convoluted Cuba policies. When compared with our posture toward other communist countries, they defy logic. Our country doesn’t limit travel to other communist countries such as China and Vietnam. In fact, our policy in those cases has always been to encourage engagement through travel and trade in the belief that doing so would move those nations toward a more free society and greater human rights. In Cuba our policy makes the exact opposite claim. The simple fact is that we have it right with China and wrong with Cuba. Lifting the travel restrictions to Cuba would hasten the end of the Castro regime.

Our Cuba policy is determined to punish the Castro government by restricting the freedom of the American people. That, say the hard-liners, will teach those Castro brothers a lesson! Or will it?

I think our travel policy toward Cuba is thoughtless. I suppose one can be excused for shooting oneself in the foot. But if you take aim before doing it, that’s just dumb. And that’s the case with these Cuba travel restrictions

Overlooked, ignored or simply not known by many who support this policy is the fact that our government, through the Office of Foreign Assets Control, investigates Americans suspected of vacationing on the sunny island 90 miles south of Miami. The U.S. government slaps people with a $10,000 fine if they are caught traveling to Cuba without prior approval. But recent news reports have made it clear that Beyonce and Jay-Z received the necessary permits from our government to travel to Cuba on a cultural exchange. Still, the hardliners who fight to continue the travel ban are outraged.

All of this press frenzy about Beyonce and Jay-Z’s trip can be a learning experience for those Americans who weren’t aware that their government has limited their freedom to travel as they please.

When I was representing North Dakota in the U.S. Senate, I authored legislation with Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., to lift Cuba travel restrictions. But our legislation was blocked by the same interests that are now fulminating about two singers visiting Cuba.

It’s long past the time for our policy to change. This isn’t about Cuba. It’s about the U.S. government restricting the liberty of the American people. And it’s time to end it.

Jay-Z put the government’s inconsistent approach well in his rap verse response to the frenzy created by their trip:

“I’m in Cuba, I love Cubans / This communist talk is so confusing / When it’s from China, the very mic that I’m using.”

Former Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, D-N.D., is a senior policy advisor at Arent Fox LLP, which does not have any clients that would benefit from the views expressed here.