House passes bill easing Cuba travel restrictions

Campaign News | Wednesday, 25 February 2009

From the Miami Herald

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a huge spending bill Wednesday that tweaked U.S-Cuba policy, making it easier for Cuban-Americans to get away with illegally traveling to the communist country.The bill -- which faces a rocky path in the Senate -- discontinues funding for enforcement of violations of the rules that limit how often Cubans living here can visit home.

The 2009 budget also contains several revisions to Cuba policy that signal a trend toward further engagement with Cuba and momentum that could lead to the end of more sanctions, Cuba-watchers said. The budget bill passed the House days after the Senate Foreign Relations committee and a senior Republican on the panel issued a strongly worded report which said the embargo's isolation of Cuba wasn't working.

Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar recommended increased engagement in drug trafficking and migration, but fell short of advocating a wholesale lifting of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. A group of well-known diplomats and academics at The Brookings Institute think tank is expected to issue a report Thursday that also calls for more dialogue with Cuba.

On Wednesday night, a group of African-American leaders was scheduled to meet with Cuban diplomats in Washington to discuss the state of U.S-Cuba relations.

"All of these pieces have to be viewed in the aggregate: it's clearly a trend," said Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass), who sponsored a bill that would allow Americans to travel to Cuba. ``The trend is to engage incrementally, and travel is a centerpiece of that. There is a momentum that's evolving here."

Cuban-American lawmakers scoffed at the suggestion that the recent flurry might signal a significant change on Cuba.

The budget bill, which passed the House on a 245-178 vote, was cooked up behind closed doors, they say, and it faces a huge climb in the Senate.

"There is nothing new here," said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a South Florida Republican. ``I'm fascinated when the press thinks all this is new, when all it is is a restatement of people's long-held positions."

Conservative Cuban-American lobbyist Mauricio Claver-Carone said if anything, momentum is gaining in favor of more restrictions.

"I'll begin to worry when members that formerly supported current Cuba policy switch their position," he said. ``Thus far, the only true momentum is the other way, as the number of supporters of current policy has dramatically increased every single Congress in the last six years, not vice-versa."

The latest movement toward freer travel to Cuba is an offshoot of President Barack Obama's campaign promise to allow Cuban-Americans to visit their families on the island more frequently. President George W. Bush changed the rules that allowed people to visit once a year, limiting those visits to every three years.

Obama is expected to allow Cuban-Americans to visit annually, but he has yet to move on the campaign promise.

Cuba watchers say it's unclear whether he will lift restrictions not just for Cuban-Americans, but for American academics, church groups and others as well. Key administration posts in charge of such decisions have yet to be filled.

When Bush created the rule in 2004, it was immediately controversial. Cuban immigrants with a dying parent were forced to choose: visit your loved one alive now -- or attend the funeral later.

"All of a sudden everyone is paying attention," said Sarah Stephens, director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, which advocates more normalized relations with Cuba. ``Things seems to be changing a little bit in Cuba, and that feeds off itself."

Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies, said the bills moving through Congress are like "oncoming trains" destined to derail.

"There is a rush to put pressure on [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton and Obama on Cuba," he said.

Obama should not bow to pressure, he said, and should instead wait for serious concessions from the Cuban government.

The debate over changing Cuba policy is largely over who should make the first move. Most conservative advocates believe it is unfathomable to offer Cuba anything, such as increased travel to the island or the ability to make purchases on credit, without a real show of change on the island. For the U.S. to make the first move, Suchlicki said, would be ``giving away its foreign policy."


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