Verbatim, as delivered

Americans have the right to travel to Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, which seeks a nuclear weapons capability in violation of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. We can go to North Korea, which threatens to destabilize East Asia with its nuclear weapons program. And even during the darkest days of the Cold War, our citizens could visit the Soviet Union.

Yet the vast majority of Americans are still prohibited by law from travelling to Cuba. It is the only country in the world where our people are not allowed to go.

I am no fan of the Castro brothers. In my book, they are dictators and despots.

The Cuban people are still denied the right to choose their own form of government. They are jailed arbitrarily. They are denied a free press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of expression. The recent beating of renowned Cuban blogger Yoanni Sanchez as she walked to a peace march says it all.

But let’s face it. By any objective measure, the nearly fifty-year-old travel ban simply hasn’t worked.

This fact is clearly understood by the American people. Recent polls indicate that 64 percent of Americans, and a full 67 percent of Cuban-Americans, support allowing all American citizens to travel to Cuba.

It’s clearly time for a change.

This hearing is not about ending the entire Cuban embargo. When President Obama abolished travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans earlier this year, he made it clear that the larger issue of the embargo was a debate for another day. Unlike the travel ban, the economic embargo does not implicate the fundamental human rights of U.S. citizens. Today we will focus on whether we should scrap the restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba.

The travel ban has prevented contact between Cubans and ordinary Americans, who serve as ambassadors for the democratic values we hold dear. Such contact would help break Havana’s chokehold on information about the outside world. And it would contribute to improving the image of the United States, particularly in Latin America, where the U.S. embargo on Cuba remains a centerpiece of anti-Washington grievances.

Proponents of the travel ban argue that we should not make any change in the law without a reciprocal gesture from the Cuban regime. I believe it is a huge mistake to treat the travel issue in this manner.

Letting US citizens travel to Cuba is not a gift to the Castros – it is in our national interest. Waiting for a concession from Havana before we do something on behalf of our own citizens perversely puts the Cuban government in charge of that decision.

I understand the concern that allowing Americans to travel to Cuba would put money in the hands of the Castros. But the reality is that a significant portion of these funds would also aid the underground economy and the small self-employed sector, strengthening an important foundation of independence from Cuba’s authoritarian regime.

At the end of the day, the importance of depriving the Castro regime of some additional financial resources is far outweighed by our interest in accelerating the spread of democratic ideas and supporting the development of a healthy civil society in Cuba.

For too long, our policy decisions about Cuba, including the travel ban, have centered on hurting the Castro regime rather than helping the Cuban people. But this has led to the worst possible outcome: In an effort to make the Castros feel the sting, we have made the Cuban people cry. It is time to make the well-being of the Cuban people the driving force behind our policy toward the island.

Lifting the travel ban will benefit both U.S. and Cuban citizens. We need to let Americans be beacons of hope; they will bring freedom with them.

Let thousands of U.S. visitors chip away at the Castro information monopoly with thousands of small cuts. Let the residents of 19 US cities actually travel to their sister cities in Cuba. Let Americans and Cubans openly discuss human rights and market-based economics and Hollywood movies on streets, beaches and in cafés throughout Cuba – and take the U.S. government out of the business of deciding what should be discussed and which Americans should do the talking.

The freedom to travel is an important thread running through American history – from the settlement of the West, to the road trips inspired by author Jack Kerouac, to the exploration of outer space. The Cuba travel ban is squarely at odds with this uniquely American value, and constitutes a disturbing infringement on the right of our citizens to freedom of speech, association, and to travel.

Except under the most extreme circumstances, the government has no business telling us where we should go or with whom we should talk. It is beyond absurd that the Treasury Department – through a humiliating and Kafkaesque licensing process -- is in the position of deciding which American church groups can and cannot visit religious leaders on the island, and which of our artists and musicians are allowed to collaborate freely with their Cuban counterparts. This is Big Brother government at its worst.

Last week we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. We re-lived the moments when East Germans and West Germans, after years of separation, came together as one.

There is also a wall in the Cuban context – invisible yet very real – and to the extent that our policy has erected this barrier, we must begin to tear it down. I want to experience, as we all do, the joyful day when Cubans on the island and Cuban-Americans are also re-united.

It’s time to trust our own people. It’s time to restore the right of Americans to travel to Cuba.

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