Cuba travel bill vote delayed

It looks like Americans will have to wait longer to travel to Cuba.

A bill seen as the best chance in years to put an end to the prohibition on U.S. citizens travelling to Cuba was due to be reviewed, or “marked up,” by the House Foreign Relations Committee, Tuesday, September 28.

When a bill is “marked up,” it is debated in committee and amendments are dealt with, leading to a committee vote on the bill. The bill then goes to the floor of the House for debate and a vote. Any bill may be considered by one or more committees.

At the last minute, the House leadership decided to postpone the markup until after the November elections. Whether the bill will be dealt with in the lame duck session after the election or not until the new Congress convenes in January has not been clarified.

In the latter case, of course, the bill will have to be re-introduced with a new number, and the whole process must start over again.

The bill is H.R. 4645, the Travel Restriction Reform and Trade Enhancement Act. The chief sponsor is Rep. Collin Peterson. D-Minn. It would end the restrictions on travel by U.S. citizens and residents to Cuba, and would facilitate limited trade with the island nation by, among other things, allowing Cuba to buy U.S. agricultural products on normal credit terms instead of having to pay up front, and facilitating interactions between U.S. and Cuban banks to achieve this.

This bill, which has a bipartisan group of 81 cosponsors, sailed through the House Agriculture Committee by a vote of 25 to 20 on June 30. However, the Foreign Affairs Committee is thought to be a tougher nut to crack, due to the presence of anti-Cuba ideologues on the committee. The ranking Republican member of the committee is Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtenin, R-Fla., one of the most vehemently anti-Castro politicians in the country.

The original plan was to promote another bill, H.R. 874, which dealt with the travel ban alone. However, that bill would have been taken up directly by the Foreign Affairs Committee only. By adding the language on agricultural exports, which entailed a change in the bill name and number, sponsors thought that they could get the bill into the Agriculture Committee where it would have a better chance of passage. However, not all the 179 co-sponsors of H.R. 874 have as yet signed on to H.R. 4645.

Promoters of progressive change in U.S. policy towards Cuba are urging people to keep lobbying to get more cosponsors on board until the legislation is passed and signed. Progress on this and any other piece of legislation can be easily tracked on the website of the Thomas system of the Library of Congress, where one can also find all contact information on congresspersons and senators, as well as committee memberships and other essential information.

Congressman Howard Berman, D-Calif., chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, released a statement explaining the decision to postpone the markup and the vote.

“The Committee had been scheduled to consider this legislation tomorrow, but now it appears that Wednesday will be the last day Congress is in session,” he said, noting that he supported the legislation. “Accordingly, I am postponing consideration of H.R. 4645 until a time when this Committee will be able to hold the robust and important debate this important issue deserves.”

This year, the right wing anti-Cuba lobby has been concentrating its campaign contribution giving on congresspersons, whether Republican or Democrat, whose seats are in possible danger in November, rather than funding just committed anti-Castro hawks. In total, 21 members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee are recipients of funds from the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee. What impact this largesse might have had on the postponement is unknown; supporters of the bill felt they have had enough votes for it to pass in the committee.

Opponents of the U.S. blockade of Cuba expressed disappointment about the postponement, but urged the public to keep up the pressure.

Image: Many Americans would like to stroll the streets of Havana, but they aren’t allowed. Photo by Patxi64 // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


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.