Santorum criticizes Obama for allowing Malia to attend class trip to Mexico

The is-Mexico-safe-or-isn’t-it debate spilled over into the 2012 presidential race on Tuesday as G.O.P. hopeful Rick Santorum criticized President Obama for allowing his 13-year-old daughter, Malia, to travel to Oaxaca, Mexico, on a class trip.

“What I would say is that the president’s actions should reflect what his administration is saying,” Santorum said in an interview with conservative talk radio host Glenn Beck. “If the administration is saying that it’s not safe to have people down there, then just because you can send 25 Secret Service agents doesn’t mean you should do it. You should set an example. I think that’s what presidents do. They set an example. And when the government is saying this is not safe, then you don’t set the example by sending your kids down there.”

On Monday, Agence France-Presse reported that Malia was on a school trip in the popular colonial city known for its arts scene and vibrant zocalo, with a phalanx of twenty-five Secret Service agents to protect her. According to Politico, a number of media outlets took down their stories about the trip in order to honor a long-standing pledge to protect the privacy of President Obama’s children. The White House confirmed today that Malia and her classmates weren’t harmed in yesterday’s earthquake, which was “felt strongly” in Oaxaca according to an expert cited in a USA Today piece.

A few thoughts…

Mexico is a big country — there are 31 states and more than 100 million inhabitants. A few weeks ago, I challenged the notion that Puerto Vallarta (PV) is unsafe for American tourists and my piece generated nearly 100 comments, most with strong opinions one way or the other. American snowbirds that live in PV, or travel there each winter, believe it’s safe, but many others have been scared off by media reports of violence and think it’s not worth the risk.

According to the New York Times, Mexico welcomed a record total of more than 22 million international visitors in 2011, most from the U.S. So unlike Senator Santorum, it seems that most Americans are able to differentiate between the safe and unsafe parts of Mexico.

The State Department hasn’t advised Americans to avoid the entire country. The notion that the Obama’s are sending their daughter into an area that the government has warned against visiting is factually incorrect. There is no advisory in effect for the state of Oaxaca. I’ve been to Oaxaca before and it’s one of the most vibrant, artsy towns in the country. There have been demonstrations there in years past and an American citizen was killed in one incident in 2006, but it’s generally a safe place, even by U.S. standards.
%Gallery-151129%Is there something inherently unpatriotic about traveling abroad? Several readers who commented on my PV post opined that they were avoiding Mexico and other foreign countries because our economy needed us to stay home and spend our money here.

I can see that point but I think that Americans need to leave the country every now and then. It helps us to appreciate what we have here, it allows us to better understand how others perceive us and it gives us ideas that we can replicate or avoid here. Besides, if you’re really concerned about supporting U.S. businesses, you can travel on an American carrier and stay at a U.S. owned hotel chain.

In my day, we took field trips to the zoo — if we were lucky. Kids are really spoiled these days. I have nieces and nephews who go to Europe for class trips. We used to go to amusement parks and zoos. For the record, I think it’s terrific that Malia Obama has a chance to travel to Oaxaca, a city that I like very much. I’m just a little jealous.

Vacation at your own risk. This is a class trip for a 13-year-old girl but politics and presidential family trips can be tricky. The recent PBS documentary on Bill Clinton noted that the family changed their vacation plans from Martha’s Vineyard to Wyoming because it was perceived as more Middle America. The administration even arranged a photo shoot of Bill riding a horse.

The Obamas like to vacation in Hawaii, where the President was born and spent much of his childhood. But don’t be surprised if his summer vacation this year involves a swing state or two. Some early guesses: Virginia Beach, the Outer Banks or Rocky Mountain National Park.

Photo via the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia via Flickr. Photos of Oaxaca by Dave Seminara.

Cuba: Nine US cities cleared for charter flights

Nine US airports have been approved for charter flights to Cuba, Reuters reported this morning. The Cuban travel agency Havanatur Celimar made the announcement on Friday.

The US government forbids commercial flights between the United States and Cuba, so all air travel between the two countries has to proceed on charter planes. The Obama Administration has already removed all restrictions on travel to Cuba by Cuban-Americans and eased the guidelines for travel to Cuba by US citizens more generally.

The general changes already enacted by the administration include an easing of restrictions on religious, academic, and professional travel and the return of people-to-people educational exchanges, which were outlawed by the Bush Administration.

The lucky nine cities approved by Havanatur Celimar: Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, New Orleans, San Juan, and Tampa. Charter flights to and from Cuba already take off and land from Los Angeles, Miami, and New York.

[Image: Alex Robertson Textor]

U.S. expresses concern over proposed Serengeti Highway

The U.S. government has expressed concern over a proposed new highway that would pass through the Serengeti plains in Tanzania, citing a study that indicates the road could have an adverse effect on the annual migration of animals there. Reportedly the Obama administration raised the issue with the Tanzanian government recently, and it could be a point of discussion for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is currently visiting the African country.

Last year, Tanzania announced plans to create the new highway, which officials say will help spur economic development in northern areas of the country. The plans immediately came under fire from environmentalists and scientists who predicted that the road would change the migration patterns of millions of wildebeests, zebra, antelope, and other animals that travel between Tanzania and Kenya each year. Opponents of the proposal even suggested an alternate route for the highway in order to lessen its impact on the Serengeti itself.

So far, all pleas to the Tanzanian government have fallen on deaf ears, and their plans to construct the new road are moving ahead. Ultimately, when it is complete, the highway will link the cities of Arusha and Musoma, although the plan now is to leave the 50 mile section that crosses through the Serengeti unpaved. Environmentalists say it isn’t the road itself that will alter the annual migration, but the amount of traffic that will pass through the area. The route is expected to be one of the busiest highways in northern Tanzania when it opens.

It is unclear at this stage if the U.S. government can do anything to alter the construction of the highway, but with Clinton in the country on a 3-day state visit, it seems likely that the topic will at least be broached at some point.

When I visited the Serengeti a few years back, I completely fell in love with the place. It is one of the most spectacular and magical places I have ever visited, and the thought of it being altered by this road is disheartening. Hopefully a compromise can be found that will limit the impact of the new highway, allowing the amazing animals that live there to roam freely.

President Obama outlines plan for America’s Great Outdoors

President Obama took time out from his very busy schedule yesterday to offer details of his America’s Great Outdoors program, a new plan designed to preserve the country’s national parks and other open spaces, while reconnecting Americans to nature.

The plan, which was originally announced last year, has been refined over the past ten months by a series of “listening sessions” during which Administration officials learned what has worked and what hasn’t, on a local, grassroots level, across the country. The result is a road map for the future of America’s outdoor natural resources that includes creating new parks and green spaces for future generations of Americans to enjoy. The initiative also includes options for restoring rivers and opening up the lands around them for recreational purposes and offering support to farmers and other landowners who work to protect their landscapes and make them available for recreation as well.

The America’s Great Outdoors program was immediately hailed as a positive move by environmental organizations and outdoor groups across the country. For instance, Tom Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, called the President’s announcements “a great first step towards ensuring our national parks, wildlife, and American heritage is better protected for future generations.” But Kiernan went on to stress that the Administration now has a lot of work ahead of it to achieve the goals it has set for the program.

The NPCA is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to protect America’s national parks from threats such as climate change and air pollution in advance of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in 2016. America’s national park system has been called our “best idea” and the NPCA hope to ensure that they’re around for at least another century as well. For more on the NPCA’s position on the AGO, and the role that national parks will play in it, click here. And to find out more about President Obama’s initiatives, check out the America’s Great Outdoors website by clicking here. You can also access the full AGO report by clicking here.

As a big fan of America’s national parks, I’m happy to hear that the Administration has put its full weight behind protecting them for future generations as well as creating new parks for us all to enjoy as well. More outdoor space for the public to explore sounds like a very good thing.

Obama administration lifts some travel restrictions to Cuba

The Obama administration is going to make travel to Cuba easier than it has been in decades, the BBC reports. Students and religious groups will now be allowed to go to the Caribbean nation, which has not had normal relations with the U.S. since Fidel Castro overthrew the pro-American government in 1959.

Specifically, religious groups will be able to sponsor “religious travel” to Cuba, and Cuban religious organizations will be able to receive remittances from the U.S. Universities and colleges will be able to send students there for educational purposes. Both of these groups will now be able to fly from U.S. airports on chartered flights.

The trade embargo will remain in place, although that was also lightened in 2009 when Obama allowed Cuban-Americans to go visit family and send money. Under the new rules coming into place, any U.S. citizen will be able to send up to $500 per fiscal quarter to non-family members in Cuba to help fund private business projects.

While Americans have been able to travel to Cuba relatively easily by going through third countries, this makes things a lot more straightforward. You still can’t buy Cuban cigars legally in the U.S., but if you meet the criteria you can now enjoy an ice cream like this guy in a photo by user localsurfer from Gadling’s flickr pool.

The reason for these measures is pretty obvious. Having been unable to assassinate Castro or get him deposed over the past 51 years, and having seen that the embargo hasn’t led to regime change, the U.S. government is trying a more subtle approach. By encouraging contacts with religious groups and the intelligentsia, and by funding private enterprise through remittances, Obama hopes to encourage change from within.