As of June 1, 2009, the Feds will require U.S. citizens to show a passport when they step off a cruise ship in Miami or drive back across the border in Laredo or Detroit. Since Jan. 23, you’ve already had to produce a passport after you’ve landed at a U.S. airport on your way home from Mexico, Jamaica or Canada.
That’s good news and bad news.
The good news: The 2004 Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), part of the post 9/11 security effort, brings us to level with immigration procedures around the globe. Until recently, three-fourths of the U.S. citizenry did not have a passport; now hundreds of thousands of Americans have applied for passports so they can book their Caribbean cruises or fly to Toronto or Cancún. And some of these new passport holders who finally dip their toes in foreign waters may later decide to venture deeper into the unknown. That can only be beneficial for a country that has difficulty finding its closest allies on a world map.
The bad news: The way the Bush Administration has tried to put the law to work is yet another chapter in the post 9/11 tragicomedy of the bumbling U.S. giant that stomps on its best friends. The United States government has implemented the measure in splendid isolation, with little regard or coordination with neighbors—and even overestimated its own organizational capacities.
The Caribbean Tourism Organization is yelling bloody murder, Mexican and Canadian diplomats are grumbling, and European media coverage of Fortress USA, formerly known as the Land of the Free, is running full steam.
However, WHTI has made headlines in the United States because our government isn’t able to comply with its own deadlines. It now takes up to four months to get a passport. Because of the State Department’s three-million passport application backlog, the administration in June temporarily waived the air travel passport rule for Canada and Mexico through Sept. 30. The U.S. Senate also told the administration to extend the start date of the land and sea travel rule from Jan. 1, 2008 by one-and-half years.
Let me remind you, this is the same administration that in 2002 bullied its closest allies—the 27 visa waiver countries whose citizens are allowed to come here by just showing their passport—into distributing biometric passports. Within 24 months, or else. They complied, did the impossible and set up large-scale biometric passport production. Never mind that many of these governments had to shove this down the throat of their own skeptical citizenry, raising the ire of privacy watchdog groups. Now countries ranging from Austria to United Kingdom routinely crank out these embedded-chip passports.
In the meantime, the United States government is blowing its own passport deadlines. And we’re not even talking about biometric passports. These are still the old-style machine-readable booklets.
Why should we care? After all, the passport regulation reduces tourism only in Mexico and the Caribbean. It affects U.S. citizens, not foreigners. And that’s actually good for Florida tourism because it forces Americans to vacation at home, you might say.
But when you take the passport bumbling as yet another link in the six-year chain of bad post-9/11 immigration policymaking, the implications for our local economy are much larger.
If you believe Florida TaxWatch, Washington’s immigration decisions are costing us dearly. A study released June 28 by the Tallahassee-based business lobbying group, titled “Florida’s Tipping Point,” says that federal don’t-come-here policies have given our state’s foreign direct investment a $34-billion blow. Also, Florida’s international tourism lost $14 billion, universities failed to collect $1.2 billion from foreign students, and Florida’s healthcare industry lost $373 million from international patients.
The administration says it’s received the message. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff started an initiative in January 2006 to tackle some of the unintended consequences of the post 9/11 security drive. While supporting the Rice-Chertoff Initiative, Florida TaxWatch sounds skeptical.
Says U.S. Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel), head of the House tourism caucus, as cited in the TaxWatch study: “The schism between how the world perceives the United States and how we perceive ourselves is a danger to our place within the global community.”
The TaxWatch study, by the way, shows a bad-news figure for Florida that can’t be explained just with bad immigration policies. The Sunshine State’s share of foreign visitors coming to the United States has been in continuous decline since the late 1990s. In 1997, 17 percent of all foreigners coming to the United States visited Florida. By 2006, this figure had dropped to 12.6 percent. (European tour operators are saying that Florida’s beach vacations have become unaffordable for package tourists, too many beachfront hotels have been replaced by condos, and when it comes to beach vacations, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Cancún offer better deals.)
For decades, anybody in the Tampa Bay area who dared to connect with Cuba could be sure to become the target of Tampa attorney Ralph Fernandez. Well, the times they are a-changing.
Here is what Fernandez, the former local head of the Cuban American National Foundation, confessed to an NBC news reporter in May: “Boy, I tell you what. If I had said this years ago, I would have gone out to that tree out there and gotten a rope. But I think we need to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba.”
Fernandez’s change of mind is not the only one. Check out the increasingly harsh words Joe Garcia, former executive director of the hard-line Cuban American National Foundation, uses to describe the Bush Administration’s tightened travel restrictions on Cuba. Garcia isn’t bashing the travel ban just out of the goodness of his heart. He is said to be interested in running for a House seat in Miami currently held by one of three of the high priests of the embargo—New College alum Lincoln Diaz-Balart, his brother Mario, or Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. (Since Garcia lives in Washington right now, he could probably choose any of the three districts in which to run, depending on where he wants to settle.) Garcia could win, too, because most Cuban Americans don’t like to be told they can’t visit their dying grandma.
The futility of the embargo was further exemplified by the $3.1 billion Port of Miami tunnel project that would link the port with I-395 and I-95 and relieve congestion in downtown Miami. In May, Miami-Dade County awarded the winning bid to a consortium led by French construction giant Bouygues Travaux Publics. Bouygues had hired a high priest of the embargo and a Miami insider, attorney-lobbyist Ignacio “Iggy” Sanchez, as counsel for the bid. After the county announced the winner, Nick Gutierrez, another hard-line lawyer, triggered the Miami equivalent of a Baghdad roadside bomb: Bouygues is doing big business in Cuba!
Iggy happens to be a board member of the Cuban Liberty Council, the organization founded by exiles dissatisfied with the Cuban American National Foundation’s softening line. So the staunch folks at the Council had no other choice but to ask the straying high priest to resign from the board. But the funniest part of the tunnel soap opera is that Gutierrez opened a Pandora’s box. Miami-Dade’s embargo politicians have no other choice: The foreign lead companies of both other bidders also do business in Cuba.
You may not know exactly where St. Vincent and the Grenadines are. I didn’t, and had to look them up to be sure. The three-island nation (pop. 119,000) in the lower eastern Antilles is seeking to join ALBA, the trade and integration pact started by Cuba and Venezuela in 2005. That’s not exactly something you would expect to please our current Administration. To no one’s surprise, George W. Bush lectured visiting Caribbean officials in June about what kind of stray cats Cuba and Venezuela are. But the Caribbean isn’t our backyard anymore—Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves drew a line in the sand in Washington. “We have some sets of relationships with [Cuba and Venezuela] which we find to be productive, and we have some relationships with the United States of America, which we find to be productive,” said Gonsalves, who also happens to chair the Community of Caribbean Nations (Caricom). "We are free and independent people.”
The prime minister of Dominica, an even smaller nation, was less diplomatic: "We made it clear to them that we are not anybody’s stooge," Roosevelt Skerit said.
Johannes Werner is a Sarasota-based business journalist who has worked in Europe, Mexico, the Caribbean and the United States. He is the editor of Cuba Trade & Investment News and hosts the Florida-Caribe radio show on WSLR 96.5 FM.