By Adriana Garcia | Reuters
U.S. lawmakers, with an eye on reports of failing health of Cuban President Fidel Castro, said they intend in the new Democratic-led Congress to seek to ease restrictions on travel and trade with the communist island.
The new legislative push coincides with a moment of change in Cuba. Castro, 80, handed power provisionally to his brother, Raul, 75, after undergoing surgery in July. Recent reports suggest Castro suffered complications from the surgery and his recovery has been slow.
The first step would be to allow the 1.2 million Cubans living in the United States to travel to Cuba whenever they want, reversing the restriction to once every three years set by the Bush administration, said Rep. Bill Delahunt, a Democrat from Massachusetts.
“That’s going to be my priority,” Delahunt told Reuters in a telephone interview on Thursday. He said he was optimistic the legislation could pass this year.
The restrictions imposed by President George W. Bush also reduced the amount of money Cuban Americans could send to their relatives back home.
These measures divided the Cuban exile community in Miami where the hard-line anti-Castro views of early arrivals have begun to be diluted by more recent migrants with stronger ties to families left behind.
Delahunt and other lawmakers who oppose the U.S. sanctions enforced on Cuba since 1962 are expected to seek to lift restrictions on academic cooperation and trade. Rep. Jose Serrano, a New York Democrat, introduced a bill two weeks ago calling for the lifting of the trade embargo in its entirety.
“The more open we become, the more we demonstrate that we want to have a respectful relationship with Cuba that would be in the best long-term interest of the United States and open political space for the Cuban people to prosper,” said Delahunt, one of a group of lawmakers who traveled to Cuba in December. They did not meet either Fidel or Raul Castro.
Republican Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona said he wants the ban on travel to Cuba lifted to allow all U.S. citizens, not just Cuban Americans, to travel to the island just 90 miles (145 km) away from the Florida Keys.
Flake said the travel ban, which can result in fines for those visiting Cuba, had given Fidel Castro a target to rail against.
“We shouldn’t give the new government the same advantages we gave the old,” Flake said.
Previous attempts to ease restrictions on Cuba have failed in the U.S. House of Representatives, and a leading Republican advocate of a hard line against Cuba said he doubted the new Democratic majority would have the votes to override a veto by Bush.
“At the end of the day, we have the votes and we still have the president,” said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Republican from Florida.
In any case, he said his colleagues were merely chipping at the edges of the U.S. embargo and that would not change until Cuba freed political prisoners and held multi-party elections.
“They are looking at trees, not at the forest. The forest is that there will not be normalized relations with the United States, neither the millions of dollars in American tourism, investments and financing that the regime wants,” he said.