Uncomfortable Freedoms / Ernesto Morales Licea

Left: Sen. Marco Rubio. Right: Sen. Bob Menendez.

One of the most notable differences between living and growing socially in a democratic country versus doing so in a country governed by totalitarian precepts, is the respect for freedom to make one’s own decisions. The sovereign freedom to choose in each moment what to do with one’s own life.

“Great freedom implies great responsibility,” a friend told me on my arrival in the United States. Let’s simplify those words to the most elemental: If no one–not institutions, nor political police, nor the State–controls your religion or ideology; if no one curtails your freedom of expression or decides how much money you earn and what you spend it on, all the responsibility for these acts rest with you.

And how good that is.

When governments or state officials forget their limits and begin to decide what kind of religion its people should practice, or what television they should watch (in Cuba today they broadcast a nightly program called “The Best of Telesur,” where they select, with tweezers, what Cubans should see even within this “friendly” channel), when the government begins to regulate, for example, where its citizens can or cannot travel, the foundations of democracy, by definition, are cracking.

This basic premise, it seems, has been forgotten by Senators Marco Rubio (Florida), and Bob Menendez (New Jersey), in their attempt to block the Obama administration’s expansion of travel to Cuba.

And I stress “attempt,” because, fortunately, when there is great nonsense there will always be great common sense to contain it: Their proposal has just been rejected, and at least for now Congress won’t even discuss it.

What was it about this time? Stopping the expansion of flights to Cuba for certain purposes to which the White House has given a green light–academic, religious and humanitarian travel–and dismantling the prohibitions that George W. Bush, in his infinite litany of mistakes, implemented against Cuba during his tenure.

The argument of the Republican Senator Rubio seems to be taken from the same discourse as the former president’s, when he argued Cuban-Americans should not be able to return to the country of their birth more than once every three years: “To increase direct commercial or charter flights to state sponsors of terrorism is totally irresponsible.”

And in addition: ““There is no reason for the United States to help enrich state sponsors of terrorism.”

Before analyzing the veracity or accuracy of these words about Cuba as a country that promotes terrorism in its most direct sense, before even calculating how much wealth the government of the Island actually accrues through these flights, we should look at the matter through the following prism:

How is it possible that the United States itself, which, in the name of supreme democracy, for example, respects the presence within its borders of Muslims hostile to the foundations of this nation (and I’m speaking here of those Muslims who did not hide their joy and praise to Allah at the time of the 9/11 massacre), can then seek to curb the freedom of people to travel wherever they see fit?

From another perspective, one can believe that some people make poor spending decisions when, for example, they devote their lives to alcohol. But the state does not try to stop them by force, with laws that prohibit spending money on alcohol. We already saw what happened in the United States alone when the absurd “Dry Law”–Prohibition–took effect in 1919.

So, if the founding framework that sustains this nation is democracy in its most basic sense, Senators Rubio and Menendez may well believe that travel to Cuba and help to Cuban families is oxygen to the government of the Island (an argument that from my point of view is ridiculous), but they must NOT restrict the rights of Cuban Americans to decide what they want to do with their own money earned through honest work.

Above all, they should not decide this when it is not the stomachs of their mothers or children who are finding sustenance in these trips or remittances.

And on this point, I will raise my flag: I am not willing to believe in the purity of intentions, the moral honestly of those who allegedly advocate for the welfare and full freedom of Cuba, but who at the same time ignore their families and don’t interest themselves in whether they are able to eat twice a day or are clothed in rags.

The truth is that in the vast majority of cases, those who argue vehemently against financial aid for Cuban families, and against family visits, meet one of two conditions: (1) They have no one on the Island, or (2) They are terrible children, terrible parents, terrible siblings; and in that case their opinion means nothing to me.

As a matter of policy, it is quite possible to have civil liberties that make certain interests uncomfortable. Interests that are fair and justified, or interests that are petty. Individual freedoms which, if they didn’t exist, could greatly facilitate the implementation of measures which in the long term could be beneficial to a particular end.

But it’s important never to forget that the narrow line that separates democracy from authoritarianism is always crossed by a single first step–believing in the power to decide, for example, how often people can travel to a certain country, or who can travel there and who cannot–and it is the responsibility of those who grow up in fully free societies to never jeopardize their foundations.