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The Cuba travel ban: 50 years of a bad idea

The House Foreign Affairs Committee will mark up legislation this week to end the travel ban to Cuba. In the name of national security and American national interests, our citizens, who are great ambassadors, should be allowed to travel there.  

This island nation 90 miles off our southern coast has long ceased to be belligerent, and all us should have the right to resume a rational relationship with Cuba and to enter into legitimate cultural exchanges with a country that has much to offer in the way of serious engagement. I believe Americans have quite a lot to offer Cuba — from a robust display of American values, to our media and just plain old human contact. We would all benefit from lifting the travel ban to Cuba.

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From a historical perspective, there is little basis for this ban. And there is questionable constitutional support for continuing to deny American citizens the opportunity to travel only a short distance to what is arguably a wonderful tourist destination that is dynamic in its own way and possesses one of the world’s delightful cultures.

This policy is counterproductive and stands in stark contrast to our approach toward other adversaries. For example, America isolated Vietnam following the conclusion of hostilities there.  Yet, more than a decade ago, Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMcConnell: 'Whoever gets to 60 wins' on immigration Meghan McCain: Melania is 'my favorite Trump, by far' Kelly says Trump not likely to extend DACA deadline MORE (R-Ariz.) and his son, Jack, paid a visit to the country where so many Americans were lost and where the senator himself was imprisoned under conditions so severe that he still bears today the impact of the torture he received there.  Yet, despite this history, he still traveled there freely, and Americans today enjoy cultural exchanges and tourism with Vietnam as they rightly have for years, benefitting both our countries.

A little more than a year ago, I spent a month traveling in Vietnam with my brother, and I loved it. Our father was lost in that war, which made the trip more compelling. So, there it is: from actual enemy with nearly 60,000 Americans killed in action, to trading partner and tourist destination. And not once did my government try to prevent me from traveling there. Both the United States and Vietnam are better off today because there is no travel ban.

I would like to make a similar trip to Cuba.

The travel ban also contradicts the lessons of history. For example, we never banned travel to the country that aided and armed our North Vietnam adversary and threatened us with nuclear armageddon during the Cold War: the Soviet Union. At the height of the Cold War, any American could visit the Soviet Union, including Russia. One could argue that travel reduced tensions between belligerents and added meaning to the saying, “Hold your friends close. Hold your enemies closer.” One could also consider it is harder to lob a nuclear weapon at someone with whom you have exchanged orchestras, dancers, athletes and tourists. (Cuba, of course, poses essentially no military threat to the United States.)

Finally, let’s talk about Iran. No American is prevented from traveling to this most historic land by his or her government, and Iran is a country that poses serious challenges to U.S. interests today and supplies weapons that are killing Americans in neighboring countries. This enlightened policy stands in stark contrast to that which we have toward Cuba, especially because it has been a long time since Cuba challenged the United States in such a way, or threatened to cut off shipping lanes to southern ports, or served as a Soviet outpost for air bases, missile fields or submarine pens. Americans can and should be able to travel to Iran, and they can and should also be able to travel to Cuba. The Iran policy makes sense; the Cuban policy does not.

This is a national-security issue under the rubric of common-sense engagement in our own area of national interest. We need to reestablish the right to allow Americans to travel 90 miles to engage with the culture that made Miami fun again. This is good for our country, good for the Cuban people and a smart policy for our national security.

Maj. Gen. Eaton is the National Security Network’s senior adviser. He spent more than 30 years in the United States Army, where, from 2003-2004, he was the commanding general in charge of training Iraqi security forces.