Ban on travel to Cuba still in place

When Presidents Obama of the United States and Raul Castro of Cuba announced the historic breakthrough in the relations between our two countries on Dec. 17, hopes were raised that the entire U.S. policy of blockading Cuba was now could end.  Some steps needed to turn the policy around are now accomplished or underway.

The Cuban 5 are free, and difficult but promising negotiations have been going on in Havana about the restoration of full diplomatic relations. There is a high probability that Cuba’s inclusion on the U.S. list of State Sponsors of Terrorism will be removed this year. This can be done by the administration with nothing more than a recommendation from the Executive Branch.  The president has already expanded the categories of people authorized to travel to Cuba, and the amount of money that can be sent to relatives in the island.

However, the center of the U.S. anti-Cuba policy, namely legislative prohibitions on trade between the two countries and the galling restrictions put on travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens and residents, are still in place.  Especially onerous is the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which stipulates that normal trade relations cannot be restored unless certain steps are taken: A new government must be formed according to U.S. stipulations, including the exclusion of Fidel and Raul Castro, and all U.S. citizens whose property was nationalized after the Cuban Revolution must have it restored or receive full compensation. 

In fact, Cuba offered compensation for nationalized property of foreigners at the time of the Revolution, which was accepted by all countries except the United States. Helms-Burton added another aspect, namely that persons who were Cuban citizens at the time that their property was nationalized and have since become U.S. citizens must also be compensated or have their property restored. Cuba as a sovereign nation could never accept these things.

So the Helms Burton Act, the Toricelli Act, the Cuban Adjustment Act and other mainstays of the Cuba blockade, laws which do real economic damage to Cuba, require legislative action to be either repealed or amended.  President Obama, on Dec. 17, called for action in Congress on this.  Now, as a start, four bills have been introduced that aim to begin this process.

On Jan. 29, Senator Jeff Flake introduced S. 299, the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015.  This bill, which has been sent to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stipulates the following, according to the Congressional Research Service:

* The President may not prohibit or otherwise regulate travel to or from Cuba by U.S. citizens or legal residents, or any of the transactions incidental to such travel, including banking transactions,

*Any regulation in effect of the enactment of this Act prohibiting or otherwise regulating such travel or transactions incident to such travel shall cease to have any force once effective,

* But the prohibitions and requirements of this act shall not apply if the United States is at war with Cuba, armed hostilities between the two countries are in progress, or if there is imminent danger to the public health or physical safety of U.S. travelers.

This bill has been sent to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It already has 14 co-sponsors, including four Republicans and 10 Democrats.

A companion bill, H.R. 664, was introduced in the House by Representative Sanford Mark, R-S.C. on Feb. 2.  It already has 12 co-sponsors including three Republicans and nine Democrats. It has been sent to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

On Feb. 11, another bill designed to end restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba was introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressman Charles Rangel, D-NY. HR 634, the Export Freedom to Cuba Act of 2015. It quickly accumulated 27 cosponsors, all Democrats. This bill does not deal with major issue of trade with Cuba, but rather makes sure that U.S. citizens and legal residents travelling to Cuba can legally bring their baggage in and out and can carry out normal transactions in Cuba that are incidental to their travel.  This bill has been referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

On Feb. 12 a companion bill to H.R. 634 was introduced in the Senate by Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., with bipartisan support.  It had not been assigned a number at writing.

The progress of all four bills, and more to come, can be followed on the U.S. Congress website.

In Congress, most opposition is likely to come from the Republicans, but there is also a small group of Democratic senators and congresspersons, led by U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who will join their Republican colleagues in fighting fiercely against any legislation to dismantle the Cuba blockade and the travel restrictions. 

On Feb. 11, opponents of improved relations between Cuba and the United States published a full page ad in the U.S. press denouncing the change in U.S. policy. Among the 58 signatories include many heavyweights of Republican and right wing politics, including former Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America Elliot Abrams, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba James Cason, media impresario Steve Forbes, former State Department Director of Cuban Affairs Dennis Hays, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, former Senator Mel Martinez, and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Otto Reich.

However, there are business interests in the United States which have been lobbying for the blockade to end so they can trade with Cuba. So even with the Republican majorities in House and Senate, this legislation can win as long as we do the legwork of informing the public and lobbying Congress.

Photo: Despite breakthroughs in U.S.-Cuba relations, restrictions on open trade and travel remain in place.  |   Lynne Sladky/AP


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.