Lawmakers Urge Lifting Travel Restrictions to Cuba

By Lawrence Morahan | July 7, 2008 | 8:29 PM EDT

Capitol Hill ( - A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers Wednesday urged the passing of legislation recently approved by both the House and the Senate that would effectively lift the ban on Americans traveling to Cuba.

Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) called the travel restriction a relic of the Cold War and said that after 40 years of failure, it was time to take a different approach to bring about an end to the Cuban regime.

"I don't think the United States government - a government that proclaims it values freedom - should be taking freedoms away from American citizens. American citizens should be able to go wherever they want to go," McGovern said.

But opponents said that lifting the travel ban on the communist-ruled island nation would send the wrong message, particularly at a time when the United States is fighting a war on terrorism.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said Cuban dictator Fidel Castro is known to have ties to terrorist groups in the Middle East and to narco-terrorists in Central and South America.

"For anybody to take measures to help fund an anti-American terrorist dictatorship just 90 miles away from the United States, when we are at war against terrorism, to me sounds not only a dangerous proposition, but a stupid proposition," Diaz-Balart said.

The House and Senate recently voted to deny funds for enforcing a ban on travel to Cuba.

Defying a veto threat from President Bush, the Republican-led Senate last week voted 59 to 36 in favor of an amendment to the Transportation and Treasury Department bill that would bar the use of government money to enforce travel restrictions to Cuba.

A similar measure was approved by the House 227 to 188 in September. A House-Senate conference committee currently is working on a final version of the bill.

Supporters of lifting travel restrictions argue, however, that more contacts between American and Cuban citizens will be more effective in spurring democratic change on the island.

"By encouraging more interaction between the United States and Cuba, I think - at the end of the day - you'll promote human rights and promote a climate where human rights can prevail down there," McGovern said.

Current law allows travel to Cuba by Americans, particularly journalists and academics. As many as 200,000 Americans visit Cuba legally each year, many of them Cuban-Americans visiting family members. However, thousands of Americans travel there illegally by way of third countries, risking fines and imprisonment.

In spelling out a new Cuba policy three weeks ago, Bush ordered his administration to strengthen enforcement of existing travel restrictions to Cuba. He also ordered an increase in the number of legal Cuban immigrants into the United States and the setting up of a commission to plan for a transition to democracy after the Castro regime is gone.

In his veto threat, Bush is accused of catering to a strong anti-Castro faction in Florida whose support was crucial to his election in 2000.

Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass.) said polling data show that the travel restrictions are losing popular support and that the ban is kept in place for political reasons.

"The policy has no credibility anymore, and I think this is true, too, not just here in Washington, but also it's losing support within the Cuban-American community," Delahunt said.

The travel ban has been in effect almost uninterrupted since 1963, when President John F. Kennedy imposed it in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis.

Diaz-Balart said lawmakers realize that Bush will veto the bill. However, vetoing the bill could hurt Bush, particularly in states such as Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, where farmers eager to trade with Cuba favor more relaxed travel regulations.

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said Republican leaders likely would strip the provision from the transportation funding so Bush would not have to veto the appropriations bill.

"It's going to create too much of a firestorm if it's vetoed," Baucus said. "Why go through something they can avoid?"

"I think a veto here would create much too much of a firestorm of controversy," Baucus added. "I think they'll find some other way to finesse it."

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