On people-to-people trips, U.S. citizens are prohibited from withdrawing money from ATMs, renting cars, picking up hitchhikers, or taking public transport.
They have a per diem spending limit of $84. They also cannot stay in casa particulares (private homes).
McAuliff calls this "absurd."
"Allowing U.S. citizens to do these things would remove the element of control that Cuban government has," he says.
There is also the argument that a ban is an infringement on U.S. freedoms. "We should be thinking about the embargo in terms of U.S. citizens' rights to
travel where they want," says Sandra Levinson, director of the Center for Cuban Studies. "We're being imposed-upon too. I can't believe that this is
something the ACLU hasn't thought of taking up."
Cuba's own recent changes, including scrapping exit visas, no doubt have more to do with economic pragmatism than openness, and granting Yoani Sanchez
permission to travel was likely a calculated move to gain international credit.
There is still a valid concern about the ethics of visiting repressive countries. Cuba has a dismal human rights and press freedom record. American
's continued imprisonment -- for importing illegal computer equipment -- is a major a blow to observers who believed a thaw was imminent.
However, while other small concessions -- cell phone use, some private enterprise, and developing private property -- may not signal any government-level
shifts, they may eventually lead to societal ones, and Cubans travelling abroad may eventually render Cuban government's demonizing of the U.S., which has
been crucial for the regime -- less credible domestically. Yoani Sanchez and many others have noted that the embargo actually bolsters the Cuban
government, and the isolation approach seems to be losing favor. Blogger Anya Landau French
noted, using data from OpenSecrets.org
, that Rubio's pro-embargo U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC is seeing dwindling cash donations.
For all its flaws, the travel policy is undoubtedly achieving some of its purposes. This is reflected by the growing number of Americans visiting Cuba,
thanks in large part to the program, and it is also opening other doors. In 2012, for the first time the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, D.C. and the
State Department's Cuba Desk rushed through business visas to allow three Cuban travel representatives to attend the New York Times travel fair. Two of
them returned in 2013.
It is unlikely that any of these things developments alone would do much to normalize bilateral ties - but combined with Cuba's own developments and
possible rethinks in Washington, it's a start. In the meantime, the fact remains that the embargo won't budge without Congressional approval. Something big
has to change in Cuba or in the U.S.
It remains to be seen what long-term effects, if any, Beyonce and Jay-Z's visit will have on U.S.-Cuba relations and travel - but that it was possible at
all is surely evidence that the people-to-people policy has, despite its flaws, already enabled some change.