While aggression against Cuba reached a new low when Bush administration officials expelled 14 Cuban diplomats on allegations of espionage, very important advances are being made in ending the embargo. Members of Congress recently introduced bills in both chambers to end the ban on travel to Cuba.

One of the most positive developments of the current congressional session was the formation of a Senate Cuba Working Group (CWG) in late March. The Senate CWG’s mission is to “examine U.S. policies toward Cuba, including current trade and travel restrictions,” and they believe that “the sanction policy of the United States has been ineffective since it was adopted in 1962.”

Senator Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.) and members of the Senate CWG introduced the “Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2003,” April 30. The bill has 11 co-sponsors. The House Cuba Working Group, led by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), introduced a bill with identical language. The House version of the bill was introduced with 55 co-sponsors, including all the members of the House CWG. If passed, these bills would lift all restrictions on travel to Cuba permanently.

On March 24, the Treasury Department, the agency charged with enforcing the ban on travel to Cuba, announced the elimination of “people-to-people” educational licenses, which will effectively end more than 60 percent of the legal, non-Cuban American travel to Cuba.

Travel groups and ordinary citizens expressed outrage over the change and reportedly overwhelmed the Treasury Department with negative responses during the 60-day comment period.

The expulsion of the diplomats was the latest in a series of events which have provoked rising tensions between the U.S. and Cuba. The Cuban Foreign Ministry denied the espionage charges and called the expulsions part of a larger administration plan to increase tensions and provoke a crisis. According to a May 15 New York Times article, “the decision to expel Cubans was made ‘at the highest levels’ in the State Department and the White House, and the policy makers then turned to the bureau [FBI] for names of intelligence operatives.”

In mid-March, 78 Cuban dissidents were arrested, tried and imprisoned on charges of conspiracy to harm the national security of Cuba. The Cuban government said the charges were a direct result of U.S. organizing, advising, equipping, and support of the dissidents. Cuban officials said the actions of these dissidents were more akin to working for a foreign government – one whose stated policy is the overthrow of the Cuban government – than acting as a legitimate opposition.

A number of organizations have issued statements of concern over Cuba’s actions. These groups and others also took issue with Cuba’s re-institution of the death penalty for three Cubans convicted of hijacking.

The Cuban government said a U.S. slowdown in issuing visas for Cubans is leading some Cuba’s desperation migration attempts like the hijackings. The U.S.-Cuban migration accords of 1994 require the U.S. to provide a minimum of 20,000 immigration visas to Cubans yearly. So far this year, fewer than 1,000 visas have been issued.

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