Congress caves in to right wing on Cuba travel

In a noteworthy turnabout, the House of Representatives rejected several measures on June 29 that would have eased some of the Bush administration’s restrictions on travel to Cuba.

Rep. Jim Davis (D-Fla.) had proposed an amendment to a wide-ranging appropriations bill calling for an easing of restrictions on travel to Cuba by Cuban Americans. It lost by three votes. In 2004, the House had approved Davis’ amendment by a 225-174 vote.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) introduced an amendment to another bill that would have reversed the limits imposed last year on college students doing study abroad in Cuba. Lee said, “This is an issue of freedom for our students to travel and gain invaluable experience and educational opportunity that only international study-abroad programs can provide.” The House rejected the amendment by a vote of 233-187.

An amendment introduced by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) to end the U.S. economic embargo failed by a vote of 169-250.

The House disallowed, on a point of order, Rep. Jeff Flake’s (R-Ariz.) amendment that would have enabled Cuban American soldiers to visit their families in Cuba. Flake withdrew another amendment that would have broadened religion-related travel.

Observers point out that this year’s voting represents a reversal of recent voting trends in the House in favor of ending the travel ban. Public opinion polls show more than 70 percent of the U.S. public favors ending such restrictions.

Philip Schmidt, a spokesperson for the Latin American Working Group (LAWG), said, “Today’s vote was shameful, and reinforces recent polls that show most Americans believe that Congress is out of touch with their opinions. Their vote to continue the separation of Cuban American families shows that they have lost touch with the will of the majority of Americans who favor ending travel restrictions.”

Schmidt pointed out that over 100 national organizations representing the views of Cuban Americans, agriculture, business, humanitarian and religious organizations sent a letter to Congress prior to the vote calling for an end to the travel restrictions.

However, conservatives, led by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), a key Bush ally, and Florida Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Diaz-Balart and his brother, Mario Diaz-Balart, lobbied heavily to maintain the restrictions.

Supporters of the travel ban are well funded. For example, LAWG, citing data from www.opensecrets.org, pointed out that the “U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC,” whose contributors disproportionately hail from South Florida, gave $182,500 towards the election campaigns of 112 congresspersons in 2004. Most lawmakers who took money from this PAC voted against easing the travel restrictions.

Despite these votes, many lawmakers from farm states continue to oppose the travel ban and to agitate in favor of measures to promote U.S. food sales to Cuba.

LAWG is halfway along on its campaign to gather 10,000 signatures in support of a petition calling for an end to the travel ban. To sign the petition, visit www.lawg.org/tools/petition.htm.