CHICAGO — Pressure is mounting on multiple fronts to end U.S. government travel and trade restrictions against Cuba: the only country in the world American citizens cannot freely visit. The battle is increasingly centering in the halls of Congress.
Shifting U.S. public opinion and new opportunities offered by the election of President Barack Obama have inspired new hopes and activity stymied during the Bush administration.
A World Public Opinion survey shows 70% of Americans, including 62% of those who identify themselves as Republicans, want the travel ban ended. A majority of Cuban-Americans now favor ending the travel ban and normalizing relations as well.
It is widely acknowledged the 50 year-old US blockade to isolate Cuba has been an abysmal failure. Instead it has isolated the United States and left U.S. corporations at a competitive disadvantage to their global rivals who have filled the trade void.
The recent vote by acclimation in the Organization of American States to allow Cuba to return reflects the brand new political landscape.
Vowing to “reset” relations between the U.S. and Cuba, President Obama established a new direction soon after taking office by allowing Cuban Americans to travel freely and send remittances to relatives in Cuba. He also ordered a full review of the entire US government policy.
In a second positive step talks recently took place between the U.S. and Cuban officials for the first time since 2003 on a variety of issues, including immigration policy, drug interdiction and hurricane preparedness. Both sides declared the talks “fruitful” and proposed a next round in December.
The Obama administration also maintained suspension of enforcement of Title III of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which permits legal actions against firms trading in US properties nationalized during the Cuban Revolution.
Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., who participated on a Congressional Black Caucus delegation to Cuba in March and met with former President Fidel Castro, introduced the US-Cuba Trade Normalization Act, which would repeal the Helms-Burton and Torricelli Acts and end the embargo. The bill has 55 co-sponsors.
The struggle in Congress to end the travel ban is the main battleground of the fight for normalization of relations. A broad coalition of business, religious, civil liberties and civil rights, and peace and solidarity groups have been organizing non-stop pressure to end the blockade. It is felt a victory to end the travel ban will mark a huge step in this direction.
Support is growing for the “Freedom to Travel Act,” HR 874, which currently has 160 bi-partisan co-sponsors in the House. A companion bill, S 428, in the Senate has 29 co-sponsors.
“Punishing the American people in our effort to somehow deal a blow to the Castro government has not made any sense at all,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., earlier this spring. Byron is a sponsor of the Senate bill. “At long last, this policy, which has been in place for 50 years and has not worked, will finally be removed,” he said.
“This is the best opportunity that has existed in a decade to end the travel ban,” said Marilyn McKenna, education coordinator of the Chicago Religious Leadership Network, one of the groups leading the fight.
“It’s a very important time for everyone to get their elected officials to sign onto HR 874 and S 428. It would be great to make a meeting with them during the August recess,” she said.
Opposition is being feverishly organized by the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, a far right wing group that has lavished funds on pro-blockade candidates and threatened to defeat those who oppose it.
A lawsuit filed in federal court on July 16 challenged the constitutionality of travel restrictions including imposing fines against travelers who fill out questionnaires when they return. The lawsuit is being brought on behalf of Brooklyn, N.Y., resident Zachary Sanders by the Center for Constitutional Rights who maintain filling out the forms is self-incriminating and a violation of the 5th Amendment.
Additionally, 140 U.S. citizens traveling with the 40th Anniversary Venceremos Brigade sent President Obama an open letter stating their determination to commit civil disobedience by defying the travel restrictions when they return Aug. 3 without a U.S. license.
The Brigade, which annually sends groups to work on construction projects, urged Obama to end the blockade.
“We are traveling to Cuba in order to denounce a failed and inhumane policy towards Cuba, and to express our solidarity with the Cuban people and their struggles. We are aware that we face repercussions for our act of civil disobedience, but are strengthened by Martin Luther King Jr.²s conviction that ‘one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws,’” the letter stated.
The 20th Pastors for Peace Friendship Caravan is winding its way to the Texas border with Mexico and will eventually arrive in Cuba. It has collected tons of medical supplies and construction tools and equipment that will be delivered to Cubans to aide with the hurricane season.
Last year three powerful hurricanes caused over $10 billion in damaged, including the destruction of 400,000 homes.
At every stop along the way, caravan participants are calling on people to phone President Obama and Congress to support all the legislation to end the embargo and are urging freedom for the Cuban Five, who have been unjustly imprisoned for 10 years.
Powerful U.S. commercial interests are a driving force behind the new legislation including U.S. agri-business, manufacturing, retail and travel corporations.
Shortly before President Obama took office, a coalition of U.S. businesses, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Society of Travel Agents, the Business Roundtable, and US Chamber of Commerce wrote a letter, in which they said, “We support the complete removal of all trade and travel restrictions on Cuba. We recognize that change may not come all at once, but it must start somewhere, and it must begin soon.”
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., a representative of the farm interests, introduced the Promoting American Agricultural and Medical Exports to Cuba Act, S 1089, which currently has 16 co-sponsors. A companion bill, HR 1531, introduced in the House by Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., has 27 co-sponsors.
For more information and to see how you can help visit the Latin American Working Group website:
Or the Washington Office on Latin America:
To learn more about the various bills and if your Senators and Representatives are on board visit: