Freeze Travel to and from Cuba

People wear protective masks in response to the spreading of coronavirus during a flight between Caracas Venezuela and la Havana, Cuba, March 15, 2020. (Carlos Jasso/Reuters)
There are reasons to think that the coronavirus there is rampant. The Communist regime has a record of downplaying its public-health crises.

The actions of China’s Communist leaders concerning the coronavirus pandemic have, yet again, made abundantly clear that totalitarian regimes do not behave like responsible nations. Rather than share information promptly to avert a global health emergency, the “revolution,” or regime, puts itself before all else, regardless of how many human beings are infected or die.

Only when the ghastly reality of the Wuhan coronavirus could no longer be contained did Beijing’s leadership stop some of the censorship, shifting to propaganda, lies, and baseless attacks to deflect responsibility for the crisis. The Iranian regime has followed a similar pattern. So will Communist Cuba, as history has shown that it cannot be relied on for accurate and complete health data on pandemics or other urgent global health challenges.

Unlike China or Iran, however, Cuba is just a 45-minute flight away from the U.S. mainland. To safeguard the American people, it was essential for the U.S. to suspend all travel to and from Cuba. It appears from a tweet Thursday by the U.S. mission in Havana that the administration has implemented such a measure. It should also consider blocking entry to the U.S. for all foreign travelers who have visited the island within the previous 120 days. This suggested timeframe is based on estimates of the spread of the novel coronavirus and on statutory limitations concerning access to American ports by vessels that have been in Cuba. Once the health crisis subsides, the U.S. can reassess travel protocols based on verifiable measures, not Cuban-government rhetoric.

Beyond the propaganda, Havana’s leaders have a long track record of hiding or manipulating information — in some instances, such as infant health and mortality, using extreme measures to create a facade of its alleged excellence in health care. The same is true for its management of virus outbreaks that should concern every American — especially those who remain on the island, including several unlawfully imprisoned by the regime.

In 2013, after decades of the regime’s claiming that there were no cases of cholera on the island, the Pan American Health Organization was quoted as confirming cholera cases among travelers to the island. News reports further cited anecdotal evidence from Cuban health workers and residents concerning outbreaks in various provinces. In 2016, when the World Health Organization announced a rare “public health emergency of international concern” over the Zika-virus outbreak in the Western Hemisphere, Cuba refused to cooperate with international organizations. Complete data on the Zika outbreak never materialized.

A 2019 analysis by close to 40 specialists and researchers from five countries studied Zika-infected travelers returning to the United States or Europe in 2017 or 2018 and found that 98 percent had visited Cuba, which did not report any cases to global health officials when the island’s outbreak peaked. The experts estimated that Cuba had over 5,700 unreported Zika cases. During the summer of 2019, the regime tried to cover up the spread and scope of the dengue outbreak.

Whether the outbreaks are of cholera or of infectious diseases resulting from Zika, dengue, or other pathogens, Communist Cuba’s lack of transparency, crumbling health-care system, lack of basic supplies such as soap, and general police-state mismanagement have impacted the U.S. mainland, especially South Florida. The U.S. must seek to prevent it from happening again, this time with the coronavirus.

There are also concerns about Cuba’s travel-security infrastructure. In the U.S., these have been raised by congressional homeland-security and national-security committees and are relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic. What steps are being taken to sanitize equipment and facilities, such as José Martí International Airport, and the Port of Mariel in Havana, where a coronavirus-infested cruise liner was allowed to dock this week?

On March 11, the Global Liberty Alliance sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, urging the administration to consider reassessing travel warnings and protocols for travel to and from Cuba. Several Florida policymakers, including Governor Ron DeSantis, Miami-Dade County mayor Carlos A. Giménez, and commissioner Esteban Bovo, followed suit. They urge that flights to and from the island be temporarily suspended.

Every year thousands of travelers come and go between Cuba and Miami International Airport. They also travel to San Antonio, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Orlando, Newark, New York, and Los Angeles. Any foreign traveler who does not reside in the U.S. and who has visited Cuba in the past three months should be prevented from U.S. entry until the crisis subsides.

For months, Cuba has had a shortage of soap, laundry detergent, and other basic hygiene products. After finally admitting the existence of coronavirus cases, the Communist leadership urged the Cuban people to make their own masks out of any spare material they may have available as they crowd in lines waiting for their food rations.

The United States, working with the private sector and the Cuban diaspora, could prepare supplies in South Florida and at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo and deliver them to the people of Cuba. Cuba’s Communist leaders will likely reject it, as Iran’s leadership did, but the Cuban people need to know the gesture was made.

Meanwhile, at least until American medical experts and policymakers have a better forecast of the course of the pandemic in the United States, Cuba should be off limits to all travelers seeking entry into the U.S. Failure to do so would be like playing a game of Russian roulette with Communist Cuba, a Kremlin client state, as the welfare of the American people is at stake.

Jason I. Poblete — Jason Poblete is a national security and international-law attorney in Washington, D.C., and chief counsel for the Global Liberty Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing the rule of law and the defense of fundamental rights.


The Latest

Rat Patrol

Rat Patrol

Illegal leaks of classified information should be treated as a serious offense. But they would be easier to prevent if less information were classified.