JIM ABRAMS | Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP)—The Senate joined the House on Thursday in striking at the four-decade-old policy of making travel to Cuba a criminal act, putting Congress on a collision course with Bush administration efforts to step up enforcement of travel restrictions.
“The travel ban does nothing to hurt Fidel Castro,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. “It only harms Americans.” He was co-sponsor of the measure, passed 60-34, that bars use of government money to enforce current travel restrictions.
Last month, the House approved identical language in its version of a $90 billion bill to fund Transportation and Treasury department programs in the budget year that started Oct. 1.
The votes in the two GOP-controlled chambers came despite a White House warning that the president would be advised to veto the bill if it includes the Cuba provision. The legislation contains vital money for highways, law enforcement and anti-terrorism.
The White House said in a statement that unlicensed tourism “provides economic resources to the Castro regime while doing nothing to help the Cuban people.”
In neither the Senate nor House did the Cuba vote reach the two-thirds margin needed to overturn a presidential veto.
But Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said the Senate vote was “a strong repudiation of the president’s recent announcement that his administration plans to tighten and increase the travel restrictions.”
The Homeland Security Department announced this month that it was enhancing efforts to curtail illegal travel and transport of goods to Cuba.
Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, a co-sponsor with Dorgan, said fighting terrorism and drug trafficking should be a higher priority than Cuban tourism. He said a Treasury office was spending 10 percent of its budget “to track down little old grammas from the West Coast who through a Canadian travel agency chose to bike in Cuba.”
The Treasury Department estimates that about 160,000 Americans, half of them Cuban-Americans visiting family members, traveled to Cuba legally last year. Humanitarian and educational groups, journalists and diplomats are also allowed visits, but thousands of other Americans visit illegally, by way of third countries, risking thousands of dollars in fines and imprisonment.
Tourism officials have estimated that as many as 1 million Americans might visit Cuba in the first year after the lifting of the embargo.
President Kennedy imposed the travel ban in 1963, a year after the Cuban missile crisis. President Carter let it lapse in 1977, but it was reimposed by President Reagan in 1982. Violators could face criminal penalties of up to $250,000 and 10 years in prison.
Free-trade Republicans, mostly from farm states, have joined liberal Democrats in recent years in questioning the effectiveness of the trade and travel embargoes, saying that the Cuban president has used them to his own advantage to avoid liberalizing contacts with Americans.
Congress loosened the trade embargo in 2000 to allow sale of agricultural products and medicine on a cash-only basis.
The House, along with its vote last month on the travel restrictions, lifted caps on money that can be sent to Cuban family members on the island.
On the Net:
Information on the bill, H.R. 2989, can be found at http:thomas.loc.gov