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Florida Doubles Down on Cuba Restrictions

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It is not just the federal government that violates Americans’ liberties; state governments can be just as tyrannical.

From the Alien and Sedition Acts in the eighteenth century to the USA PATRIOT Act in the twenty-first century — and many other things in between — the U.S. federal government has ignored its own Constitution and sought to weaken or destroy Americans’ liberties. It happens so often now that it’s not a question of whether the feds will issue another rule or regulation infringing our liberties, but when.

Unfortunately, the fifty states have their own cornucopia of ridiculous and tyrannical laws. On Sunday, in some states and counties it is illegal to hunt, sell alcohol, hold horse races, sell cars, or open a store before noon. In some states only the state government can operate liquor stores. In some states bicyclists are required to wear a helmet, while motorcyclists are not. In some states you can be arrested for serving your teenager a glass of wine with dinner in your own home. Some municipalities have banned plastic bags and water bottles. Only one state — New Hampshire (state motto: “Live Free or Die”) — has neither a primary nor a secondary seat-belt law for adults.

One of the most nonsensical and oppressive federal laws is the embargo against Cuba. This embargo restricts U.S. citizens from doing business in or with Cuba. It is still illegal for Americans to purchase Cuban cigars and for American cigar manufacturers to import Cuban tobacco. The law also restricts travel to Cuba by making it illegal for most Americans to spend money in Cuba without a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control.

According to the U.S. State Department,

The Cuban Assets Control Regulations are enforced by the U.S. Department of the Treasury and affect all U.S. citizens and permanent residents wherever they are located, all people and organizations physically located in the United States, and all branches and subsidiaries of U.S. organizations throughout the world. The regulations require that persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction be licensed in order to engage in any travel-related transactions pursuant to travel to, from, and within Cuba. Transactions related to tourist travel are not licensable. This restriction includes tourist travel to Cuba from or through a third country such as Mexico or Canada. U.S. law enforcement authorities enforce these regulations at U.S. airports and pre-clearance facilities in third countries. Travelers who fail to comply with Department of the Treasury regulations could face civil penalties and criminal prosecution upon return to the United States.

That wording allows the government to maintain that it is not restricting freedom of travel.

Violating the Cuban Assets Control Regulations — Title 31 Part 515 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations — can result in ten years in prison, $1 million in corporate fines, $250,000 in individual fines, and civil penalties up to $65,000 per violation.

Contrary to what many Americans may think, the embargo against Cuba was not imposed after the Cuban Missile Crisis. It began in 1960 in response to Fidel Castro’s coming to power and beginning to nationalize the property of all foreign-owned private companies, most of which were owned by U.S. corporations and individuals.

But U.S. meddling in Cuba has gone on for more than 100 years. After gaining Cuba from Spain as a result of the Spanish-American War, the United States, instead of letting the Cuban people exercise their right of self-determination (isn’t that what Woodrow Wilson sought after World War I?), made Cuba a virtual U.S. protectorate, intervened at will in Cuban affairs, sent in U.S. Marines on several occasions, and to this day forcibly “leases” a 45-square-mile area of land and water at Guantanamo Bay, which is home to a U.S. military base and the notorious Guantanamo prison.

Legislators in my state of Florida recently passed a bill (HB 959) to further restrict businesses (and not just Florida business) from dealing with Cuba. “An act relating to state and local government relations with Cuba or Syria” passed the Florida House by a vote of 115-0 and the Florida Senate by a vote of 39-1. It prohibits “a state agency or local governmental entity from contracting for goods and services of more than a certain amount with a company that has business operations in Cuba or Syria” and requires “a contract provision that allows for termination of the contract if the company is found to have business operations in Cuba or Syria.” Gov. Rick Scott has until May 5 to sign or veto the bill. If adopted, the law would take effect July 1, 2012.

In one of the Republican presidential debates in Florida earlier this year, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum — pandering to the state’s Cuban-American voters — all took a hard line against Cuba, as though the United States were still in the middle of the Cold War.

With Cuba on the verge of opening up, it is time for restrictions relating to Cuba to be lifted, not increased.

Not only has the embargo failed miserably to oust the Castro regime, it has contributed to the suffering and poverty of the Cuban people. And not only is the embargo both political and vindictive, it is a perfect example of the hypocrisy of the U.S. government.

Does Castro regime’s infringe the economic, political, religious, or civil liberties of the Cuban people? Of course it does. And so does the government of every other country, including the United States. A country doesn’t have to be called “communist” to have an oppressive and tyrannical government. According to the U.S. State Department, “Cuba is a totalitarian police state which relies on repressive methods to maintain control. These methods include intense physical and electronic surveillance of both Cuban citizens and foreign visitors.” Of course, it is undisputable — and especially since 9/11 — that the U.S. government does much the same thing to both American citizens and foreign visitors.

The United States not only tolerated countless oppressive regimes throughout the twentieth century, it supported a number of them: Iran’s shah, Egypt’s Mubarak Pakistan’s Musharraf, Iraq’s Saddam, Chile’s Pinochet, just to name a few. And even Castro’s predecessor, Batista. The United States maintained diplomatic relations with the Soviet “evil empire” Union throughout the Cold War. Richard Nixon reestablished diplomatic relations with Red China and met with Chairman Mao, one of the greatest mass murderers in history. And who can forget that during World War II the United States allied itself with the monster Joseph Stalin, who had already killed more people than Hitler ever would.

The Cuban embargo directly infringes Americans’ economic liberty. As Jacob Hornberger has written,

Economic liberty includes the right to do whatever one wants with his own money. The right to dispose of one’s wealth is as fundamental a right as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion. Government no more has the legitimate authority to punish a person for spending his money in unapproved ways than it has to punish a person for his expression of political or religious views. What a person does with his own money reflects his value judgments as much as what he reads or publishes or how he worships.

Likewise, in a free market, businesses have the right to buy any product from and sell any product to any business or individual in any country for any price they agree on. Quotas, protective tariffs, and anti-dumping laws are anathema to a free market. Businesses also have the right to do business in any country regardless of a particular country’s form of government, economic system, human-rights record, or opinion of its leaders in the eyes of the U.S. president.

If an American objects to a U.S. firm’s doing business in a particular country because the government of that country oppresses women, imprisons political dissenters, violates human rights and civil liberties, strictly regulates the economy, practices religious persecution, tolerates sweat shops, or permits child labor, then he has the right to choose not to do business with that firm. However, neither he nor the U.S. government has the authority to forcibly prevent 300 million other Americans from doing business with it.

But it is also true that U.S. companies doing business in other countries do so at their own risk. They have no right to expect the U.S. government to send in the Marines if their property is expropriated.

Regardless of what type of government Cuba has, restrictions on businesses doing business in or with Cuba or on individuals traveling to or spending money in Cuba are nothing less than attacks by the U.S. government on the free market and individual freedom.

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