The Freedom to Travel

One of surest ways to identify a totalitarian state is when a government prevents its citizens from leaving.

The most infamous example of this tyranny is, of course, the Berlin Wall built by communist East Germany to keep its people from fleeing to West Germany. The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 and torn down in 1989. In the meantime, thousands of Germans risked their lives to breech the wall and flee to the West. Over a hundred never made it because they were killed by East German border guards who followed orders to shoot their fellow citizens who were attempting to flee the oppressive communist state.

Even now the repressive governments of some countries require special exit visas for foreigners, guest workers, and visitors. Others go out of their way to do what they can to strongly discourage or prevent their own citizens from leaving. Such is the case in communist North Korea—“the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”—and the communist island “paradise” of Cuba.

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Until just recently, Americans who wanted to travel to Cuba were prevented from doing so without first establishing that they fit into one of twelve travel categories approved by the U.S. government (e.g., family visits, journalistic activities, professional research and meetings, educational activities, public performances, humanitarian projects, religious activities) and then booking a costly charter flight to the island from Miami or Fort Lauderdale because no regular commercial flights were allowed. Diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba were severed in 1961 and not reestablished until 2015. In February of 2016, the United States and Cuba signed a deal to restore commercial airline service between the two countries. The first flight occurred on August 31, 2016, when JetBlue flight 387 flew from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara. Just recently, almost while the dead body of Fidel Castro was still warm, the first commercial flight from the United States to Havana in more than 55 years landed in Cuba’s capital. There are still travel categories, travel restrictions, and spending limits, but several airlines are now making regularly scheduled flights between a number of cities in the United States and several cities in Cuba even as travel to Cuba for tourist activities remains prohibited by law.

This is an outrage. It was an outrage in 1961 when the United States broke diplomatic relations with Cuba and then imposed an embargo, and it is an outrage now even though diplomatic relations have been restored.

Now, before continuing, let me be perfectly clear. Fidel Castro was a bad guy. After his death, President Obama spoke of “the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families, and of the Cuban nation.” Castro certainly did alter the course of these things—but, as Obama neglected to say, it was to the detriment of individual lives, families, and the Cuban nation.

The U.S. State Department says about Cuba:

Cuba is an authoritarian state that routinely employs repressive methods against internal dissent and monitors and responds to perceived threats to authority. These methods may include physical and electronic surveillance, as well as detention and interrogation of both Cuban citizens and foreign visitors. Human rights conditions in Cuba remain poor, as the Cuban government limits fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

Recent descriptions of Castro and life in Cuba can be found here, here, and here:

Under Castro’s control, all forms of political dissent were severely punished. Those who dared to speak out became political prisoners and were sent away to horrific prisons, some never to be heard from again. Journalists who were caught attempting to report the truth were dismissed as “mercenaries” working for the United States government and were tried in secret tribunals.

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Castro was one of the most tyrannical dictators in the world. After taking power in 1959, he refused to permit democratic elections, suppressed dissent, censored the news, and controlled travel. And, of course, Castro was a communist or socialist. As president, he imposed a socialist economic system on the island, which entailed the nationalization of all private property. Most everyone became an employee of the state.

But as bad as Castro was, that still doesn’t justify the U.S. government restricting the freedom of Americans to travel to Cuba.

In a free society, any American would have the right to travel to any country by any means for any reason for any period of time and spend any amount of his money while he is there.

It doesn’t matter if the country is ruled by a brutal dictator. It doesn’t matter what the leaders or the people of the country think of America, Americans, or the American government. It doesn’t matter how the government of the country oppresses its people. It doesn’t matter if the country has little chance of becoming more democratic in the near future. It doesn’t matter if the country forbids its citizens from traveling to the United States. It doesn’t matter how tyrannical the country’s government is. It doesn’t matter if the country is communist. It doesn’t matter if the country is a police state. It doesn’t matter if the country punishes dissent. It doesn’t matter if the country has jails full of political prisoners. It doesn’t matter if the country commits massive human rights violations. It doesn’t matter if the country supports terrorism around the globe. It doesn’t matter if every other country in the world prohibits its citizens from traveling to that country.

Now, I don’t know why any American would want to go to a country characterized by some of these things, but that is not the point. The point is that Americans in the “land of the free” should have the freedom to travel—anywhere. It is individual Americans and American businesses that should have the liberty to decide whether they want to visit, do business with, or do business in Cuba.

The trouble is, Americans don’t live in a free society, although most Americans think they do. Americans live in a relatively free society, as I War, Empire, and the M... Laurence M. Vance Best Price: $16.00 Buy New $9.95 (as of 03:35 EDT - Details) explained here. Just because there is no wall to keep Americans in, and just because Americans are free to travel to most countries in the world, doesn’t mean that they have the freedom to travel—not if they have to jump through a maze of hoops to get to a country 90 miles away from Miami.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention two things related to the freedom to travel.

With freedom comes responsibility. Americans who travel to a country with an authoritarian government travel at their own risk. They can’t expect the U.S. government to send in the Marines should they get in trouble.

I am speaking only about emigration, not immigration. The freedom to travel doesn’t mean the freedom to trespass.

Instead of worrying about violations of freedom around the globe and wanting the U.S. government to “do something” about them, Americans should demand freedom from their government to travel to any country they wish, for business or pleasure.