By Fabiola Moura| Bloomberg
Legislation to end a ban on Americans traveling to Cuba has enough support in the U.S. House of Representatives to win approval by year-end, said Representative Sam Farr, a California Democrat.
The bill to let U.S. citizens resume travel to the Caribbean island except in times of war or cases in which they face imminent danger has 181 votes in the House and needs 218 to pass, said Farr, a co-sponsor of the legislation. The plan is backed by travel groups such as the United States Tour Operators Association and the National Tour Association and human rights groups such as the Washington Office on Latin America and has been helped by President Barack Obama’s election, he said.
“It is believed we can get to this before the end of the year,” Farr, 68, said in an interview in New York. “We haven’t had a policy about Cuba. We’ve had policies about getting votes in Florida and Obama changed that by getting those votes.”
The U.S. ended restrictions on Sept. 3 on Cuban-Americans travel and money transfers to relatives in Cuba. The new rules also allow U.S. telecommunications companies to provide service in Cuba for mobile telephone, satellite radio and television. Exceptions to the 1962 trade embargo on communist Cuba include $500 million per year in agricultural exports, Farr said.
“If you are a potato, you can get to Cuba very easily,” he said. “But if you are a person, you can’t, and that is our problem.”
Obama is under pressure from Latin American leaders to end the trade embargo to help improve relations in the region. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will ask Obama to end the embargo during the United Nations General Assembly this week, spokesman Marcelo Baumbach said Sept. 17.
Obama announced in April he would lift travel limits for Cuban-Americans visiting family in Cuba. At the same time, Representatives Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart, both Florida Republicans, issued a statement that the president had made “unilateral concessions to the dictatorship” that would “embolden it to further isolate, imprison and brutalize pro- democracy activists.”
Cuba’s former President Fidel Castro, who handed power to his brother Raul Castro last year, called on Obama to completely lift the trade embargo.
White House officials have said there are no plans to lift the embargo. At the same time, the administration is undertaking a full review of policy toward Cuba with the goal of advancing “the cause of freedom” in the country less than 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the coast of Florida, Daniel Restrepo, a special assistant to Obama, said in April.
A group of House and Senate lawmakers proposed in March ending restrictions to allow all U.S. citizens and residents to travel to Cuba. Farr said the legislation, known as the “Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act,” also has enough votes to clear the Senate, where Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, and Republican Senator Michael Enzi of Wyoming introduced the legislation.
“There’s a lot more openness in the Congress,” Geoff Thale, program director in the Washington Office on Latin America, said in an interview in New York. “Support is building. The travel industry and business community are not just formally in support but actively engaged. That’s why I think we’re going to see a difference.”
Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who is of Cuban descent and sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, has vowed to fight the easing of travel restrictions.
Philip Peters, a vice president and Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute, a public policy research group in Arlington, Virginia, said proponents of the bill may succeed in winning congressional approval as public opinion grows among Americans that U.S. rules on Cuba aren’t in line with much of the country’s foreign policy.
“They’ve got a good shot,” Peters said in an interview. “Certainly right now they’re in striking distance and they’ve got plenty of time left in the session.”
Ending the travel ban may lead as many as 1 million Americans to visit the island every year, Lisa Simon, president of the National Tour Association, known as NTA, said in an interview. It would also help push forward talks on human rights issues, Thale said.
“We’ve had a policy for 50 years of isolating Cuba and it hasn’t done anything about the human rights situation,” Thale said. “I don’t think there is some magic solution. I don’t think ending the travel ban will cause Fidel to say let’s have elections, let’s release all the political prisoners tomorrow. What it will do is open the process of dialogue.”
Obama’s administration has been showing a “gradual relaxation and diplomatic opening” toward Cuba, Thale said. He cited the government’s decision to re-initiate talks on migration and direct mail, and also to put down the billboard operated by the U.S. government outside its special interests section in Havana, which he said often displayed anti-Cuba messages.