Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Lawmakers push to open travel to Cuba

By JIM ABRAMS – 22 minutes ago

WASHINGTON (Associated Press) — It's time for Congress to end the restrictions that for more than half a century have prevented most Americans from visiting Cuba, a bipartisan group of senators said Tuesday.

The lawmakers, at a news conference where they were joined by trade and human rights groups, also made clear that their proposal to allow travel should be a first step toward breaking down economic and trade barriers between the two countries.

The travel embargo, said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., is a "failed policy that has failed for 50 years."

Lawmakers, backed by business and farm groups seeing new opportunities in Cuba, have been trying for years to chip away at the trade and travel bans imposed after Castro took power in Havana in 1959. They have made little headway because of strong political resistance led by Florida's influential Cuban-American community.

But the situation has changed in the past year with an ailing Fidel Castro turning political control over to his brother Raul and the election of President Barack Obama, who like other Democratic presidents is more open to increasing nonpolitical contacts with the Cuban people.

The Obama administration, while steering clear of the more controversial issue of ending the trade embargo, this month backed changes making it easier for Cuban-Americans to visit and send remittances to their relatives on the island. It's also thought the administration could take other steps, such as revising rules that have impeded farm and medical sales to Cuba, before a summit of Latin American countries in Trinidad next month.

The Dorgan bill — co-sponsored by Richard Lugar, top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee; Mike Enzi, ranking Republican on the Health Committee; and Banking Committee chairman Christopher Dodd, D-Conn. — would prevent the president from stopping travel to Cuba except in cases of war, imminent danger to public health or threats to the physical safety of U.S. travelers.

Reps. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., have an identical bill in the House with 120 co-sponsors.

Dorgan said there are sufficient votes in both chambers to pass the legislation, although there is certain to be lively opposition. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the son of Cuban immigrants, slowed confirmation of several administration officials and passage of a major spending bill because that bill contained the changes in rules on Cuban-American travel.

Cuban-born Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., said he would continue to oppose the legislation. "This is the time to support pro-democracy activists in Cuba, not provide the Castro regime with a resource windfall."

Supporters stressed that Cuba is the only country in the world to which the United States bans travel: there are a few exceptions, such as for journalists or humanitarian visits. They said open travel would make Cubans more favorable to American people and ideas. "I think it will make a huge impact. It will change Cuba," said Enzi, R-Wyo.

The list of groups supporting the bill, including the American Farm Bureau, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and associations representing rice, wheat and dairy industries, was indicative of the broader goals of opening up Cuba.

American Farm Bureau Federation president Bob Stallman said tightly controlled food sales to Cuba, initiated by the Clinton administration, could grow from the current $400 million a year to more than $1 billion with eased restrictions.

Ending the travel ban, said the Chamber of Commerce's Myron Brilliant, "is an important first step. We also want to see an end to the trade embargo."

Dodd said that while there is support for lifting the travel ban, it was too early to talk about ending the trade embargo. "That's a step too far at this juncture."

The legislation is S. 428 and H.R. 874.

On the Net:

* Congress: http://thomas.loc.gov

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