Travel Bans: Do No-Go Lists Fight Freedom?

Myanmar Visa.jpg

Had the 1789 constitutional amendments protected travel alongside the rights to freedom of the press, religion, and assembly, the United States might be a less xenophobic country. It might be less prone to treat arriving tourists as terror suspects, and more encouraging to those of its own citizens who want to explore the world’s darker corners. Instead, foreign travel in the age of terror feels more like an imperial favor than a constitutional right.

Europe now has few internal border controls, and tourists routinely depart for Algeria and Myanmar. The American government, however, equates travel with a political endorsement, and seems to think that economic embargoes spread the doctrines of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

How many departing despots, making their runs for the border, proclaim, “I’d still be in power if it wasn’t for that damned travel ban!” Who thinks keeping tourists from Syria will persuade Bashar al-Assad to abdicate? Nevertheless, dividing the travel world into gardens of good and evil is an increasing preoccupation of the American government.

Despite President Barack Obama’s celebrated processions and feel-good speeches in Europe and the Middle East, his administration and that of George W. Bush are easily the most xenophobic since President Woodrow Wilson in 1919 unleashed A. Mitchell Palmer and the young J. Edgar on alien associations.

If you have doubts, add stickers to your luggage from Iran, Somalia, Yemen, North Korea, Cuba, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Sudan, Pakistan, or Kashmir. See what questions you get asked when returning from your next cruise.

The ban on Cuban travel dates to October 1960, although the absence of KFC chicken in Havana has done nothing to dislodge the Communist regime. The net effect of the embargo has been to allow the Castros to govern harshly in splendid isolation from American goods and services.

Would Fidel and his brother have lasted in power for fifty-four years if they had to contend with the landings of Carnival Cruise Lines, instead of those CIA operatives at the Bay of Pigs?

The U.S. does not explicitly ban travel to countries like Iran and North Korea, although because it is easy to construe travelers checks as commercial relations or to equate Revolutionary Guard souvenirs bought in the Tehran airport as contraband, few Americans are empowered to book passage to Pyongyang or Isfahan.

Myanmar, or Burma, is another country on the suspect travel list, it being felt that idling in places like Rudyard Kipling’s old Moulmein Pagoda implies support for the ruling military junta.

Not only does the United States discourage its citizens from wandering the globe freely, it has confronted foreign travelers coming into the US with a nightmare of entrance requirements, including demands for conforming photographs, biometric passports, and thoughtful answers to edgy consular questions. Europeans not on the visa-waiver program have to jump through hoops just to spend money in Disneyland. (“Visit America: Your fingerprints are already here!”)

President Obama claims credit for “bravely” reducing restrictions on Cuban travel (group visas are now easier to get; relatives can go more often), but maintaining all the other Cuban embargoes, including those on American medicine, hardly adds up to a profile in courage.

To counter these dark perceptions, there is something new called Brand USA, whose public/private mission is to “encourage increased international visitation to the United States and to grow America's share of the global travel market. In doing so, we aim to bring millions of new international visitors who spend billions of dollars to the United States, creating tens of thousands of new American jobs.” Needless to say, a worthy goal.

The $12 million ad campaign includes Roseanne Cash singing “Land of Dreams,” and the assumption that most tourists to America are here for bungee jumping (unless the high wires in the trailer are serving the interrogation needs of Homeland Security).

The more insecure a government, the more likely it is to impose travel restrictions. The People’s Republic of China had it borders closed for years. Cuba has all sorts of rules to regulate which of its citizens can go abroad (generally only those who leave behind hostages). North Koreans live behind the barbed wire, as did the inmates of Enver Hoxha’s Albania.

The Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall were other examples of the degree to which strutting regimes will go to keep their citizens from foreign travel or, as V.I. Lenin said, “voting with their feet.” Who would think the United States would become the heir to the tradition of telling its citizens where they can go, and with whom they can spend their free time?

Who believes that travel bans and trade restrictions had a hand in bringing change to the Soviet Union, South Africa, Libya, or Rhodesia? Embargoes beggar the local population and enrich the sanction breakers. But they suit the American imperium that wants its laws to govern every corner of the globe. Witness that a British bank was fined $340 million for doing business with Iranians.

If traveling freely was a constitutional right, Americans could make up their own minds about where to go and what to see, even if it included taking the measure of Beloved Leader’s North Korea or of Potemkin’s villages in Russia. How many Americans would believe the government propaganda about Iran or Cuba if they were free to inspect the poverty themselves, or to mix with local pro-American populations?

In the last decade the United States has fought wars, directly or by proxy, from Morocco to Kashmir, yet few Americans have been to these countries and even fewer are encouraged to have a look.

More often than not, Washington ends up in conflict with those countries that start out on its no-go lists, for example, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, or Sudan. A travel ban or economic embargo is often the first salute in the drum to war.

In most of the Middle East, only professional diplomats and journalists are deemed worthy to offer their firsthand impressions, although I would put more stock in backpacker accounts of Iran than I would in a State Department white paper.

Because I am a wandering contrarian, the travel that often engages me is to countries that belong in the dustbin of history. I am drawn more to the Axis of Evil than to the Magic Kingdom or Vegas floorshows, although I return from places like Albania, apartheid South Africa, or the Soviet Union, immune to the charms of strongman governments.

Everything I know about Pakistan’s dysfunctional tribal areas I learned in Peshawar, near the border with Afghanistan. I gave up on the Soviet Union after going there on a student tour in the 1970s. The reason I believe little that is reported about the Syrian civil war is because I drove across that country—in a rental car with my teenaged son—something I recommend to anyone… although not just at this moment.

Flickr Photo by By Sem Paradeiro : Myanmar Visa

Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine, is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical travel essays. His next book is "Whistle-Stopping America".


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