Congress may ease Cuba travel restrictions

Advocates for ending the ban on travel to Cuba are upbeat this year about action in Congress. A December Gallup poll showed that two-thirds of U.S. voters desire normalized U.S.-Cuba relations. The travel restrictions, the most unpopular part of U.S. Cuban policies, may be vulnerable.

Mavis Anderson of the Latin American Working Group (LAWG) points to a new Democratic majority in Congress. Committee control may enable congressional leaders to shepherd bills through Congress unencumbered by amendments or joined with other legislation that is unacceptable.

Legislators and newspaper editorial writers see changes under way in Cuba and are concerned about reduced U.S. influence due to the barriers. Because of expected “change in the 48-year-old dictatorship,” the Miami Herald says, “U.S. policy should encourage, not reject, constructive people-to-people contacts with Cuba.”

Congress will be dealing with several bills aimed at easing the travel ban. According to the LAWG, which is the principal lobbyist engaged with Congress on the matter, HR 654, introduced Jan. 24 by Reps. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), deserves immediate support.

The bill reads, “The president shall not regulate or prohibit, directly or indirectly, travel to or from Cuba by United States citizens or legal residents, or any of the transactions incident to such traveling.” In other words, the travel ban would disappear.

Earlier attempts to undo the restrictions centered on cutting off funds for implementing the travel ban. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) has introduced another bill this year along those lines, one that opens up Cuban travel for educational purposes.

On Jan. 31, Reps. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) and Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) held a press conference to announce HR 757, a bill to allow U.S. citizens and permanent residents to visit family members in Cuba. Delahunt lauded family values and bemoaned an “immoral policy, one that has caused pain and suffering to our own citizens, as well as to Cubans.”

HR 757 would allow Cuban Americans unrestricted visiting to the island and unlimited deliveries of money to relatives. Bush regulations allowed Cuban Americans one trip every three years — to visit immediate family members only — and cut back their financial remittances.

Delahunt, no friend of the Cuban Revolution, lamented “reduced American influence on the island [just] as dramatic changes are occurring.”

Frank Calzon, a paragon of right-wing intransigence who serves as director of the so-called Center for a Free Cuba, called the Bush restrictions “absurd.” Condemnation from such a quarter may signify eventual Republican support for HR 757.

Anderson supports both bills but prioritizes HR 654, a bill that covers all categories of travel to the island. The bill, she has said, “has great prospects for passing with strong bipartisan support. It would signal the beginning of the end of the full embargo.” The LAWG goal is to obtain 100 co-sponsors for the bill by the end of February.

Reps. Rangel and Lee have introduced one bill to lift the entire blockade, and Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) another. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) is offering legislation ending the requirement of Cuban importers of U.S. food to use cash, not credit.

Legislation on the travel restrictions fared less well in Congress in 2005 and 2006 than earlier. Reduced support for liberalized travel was attributed to the election in 2004 of new members beholden to Cuban American campaign contributors. According to LAWG, 182 members of the 110th Congress will likely support anti-blockade legislation. For a majority, 218 votes will be needed. Support from 54 new members is seen as crucial.

The struggle to end the U.S. blockade of Cuba has never been limited to Congress, incubator of the notoriously anti-Cuban Torricelli (1992) and Helms-Burton (1996) laws. This summer a number of U.S. citizens will protest Washington’s policies by going to Cuba, purposefully defying laws they see as illegal, immoral and cruel.

This will be the 38th year that the Venceremos Brigade goes there to work. The Pastors for Peace Friendshipment Caravan will be taking humanitarian aid to Cuba for the 18th time and will not be securing the license that is required by U.S. law.

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