Three weeks ago today three students were indicted for violations of the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act. If they are convicted, as seems likely, they could receive terms of up to fifteen years in Federal prison.
The charges stem from a Castro-sponsored trip to Cuba which the three students and fifty-six others took last summer, traveling without the specially validated passports required by State Department rules. After their return, at hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee and elsewhere, the students amply demonstrated that they are silly and irresponsible. But their behavior should not obscure the fact that the travel ban they violated is remarkably bad policy.
American travel to Cuba came under the arbitrary control of the State Department on January 19, 1961. The Department acted under a section of the McCarran-Walter Act which authorizes the executive branch to restrict travel in times of "national emergency" as well as during war. Such a state of national emergency was proclaimed in 1953 and is still legally in effect today.
Peacetime restrictions on travel are something relatively new. Before the 1950's, a passport was a sort of identification card, a request by one government of another to grant a citizen safe passage. In the past decade or so, however, passports have increasingly come to be regarded officially as permits to leave the country.
Supporters of the limitations on travel to Cuba offer two justifications for the policy. The first is that since the United States maintains no diplimatic representatives in Cuba, the safety of Americans who go there cannot be guaranteed. The second is that unrestricted travel would involve a significant flow of dollars into Castro's treasury, dollars which could presumably be used against the United States both in Cuba and in other Latin American countries.
Neither reason provides sufficient justification for the ban. The safety of Americans who travel is their own business. Certainly, the government has a duty to warn its citizens of danger and to tell them that it cannot protect them if they choose to go to Cuba; but forbidding them to go, and threatening them with imprisonment if they do, is excessive to say the least.
The "dollars" argument has no basis in past experience. During the first two years after Castro came to power, when travel was unrestricted, very few Americans visited the island in spite of a huge publicity campaign in American newspapers and magazines. If the ban were lifted now, not many Americans are likely to want to go to Cuba, and those who would go probably would be mostly political and social observers rather than free-spending tourists.
In any event, neither reason applies to the students under indictment. Their safety was guaranteed by the Cuban government which was anxious to exploit their trip for propaganda purposes. Also, the Cubans paid the entire cost of the junket. Far from bringing dollars to Castro, the trip involved an outflow of pesos from Cuba. By contrast, newspapermen and others whom the State Department allows to go to Cuba spend money there.
The travel ban is useless as a way of protecting American citizens and preventing dollars from reaching Castro; it is worse than useless as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy. Forbidding all but a few people to go to Cuba invites defiance, especially defiance by people who, like these students, are pro-Castro to begin with and are likely to return with glowing reports of happy peasants and contented workers. In the process, the U.S. government is made to look as if it is trying to suppress "the real truth" about Cuba.
The United States should leave banning travel to Castro; it suits him better than it does us. The restrictions on travel to Cuba should be withdrawn as a thoroughly unnecessary limit on the freedom of American citizens. And they should be withdrawn soon: the students who organized the last trip plan a second one this winter on a much larger scale. The resulting publicity will stimulate Congressional pressure which could make a change in policy politically impossible.