Support Builds in Congress to Lift Cuba Embargo

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators and interest groups is backing a bill that would end the long economic embargo against Cuba, including travel restrictions to the island.

The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act was introduced Tuesday by Senators Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat and Senate Democratic Policy Committee chair, and Michael Enzi, a Republican from Wyoming. They were joined by 20 co-sponsors, including influential Senators Christopher Dodd and Richard Lugar, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Human Rights Watch (HRW).

"The people of Cuba ought to be free," said Sen. Dorgan, pointing to the U.S.’ failed Cuba policy in achieving this. The nearly 50-year-old embargo on Cuba is only "punishing American people," he said.

If passed, the bill would prohibit the president from regulating or prohibiting travel to or from Cuba by U.S. citizens or legal residents or any of the transactions ordinarily incident to such travel, except in time of war or armed hostilities between the United States and Cuba, or of imminent danger to the public health or the physical safety of U.S. travelers.

The Cuban embargo, introduced in 1961 and subsequently tightened further, prohibits travel to and business dealings with Cuba for all U.S. citizens. Many have argued that this policy actually thwarts U.S. interests and further strengthens the government there.

"The U.S. embargo on Cuba is a 50-year failure, and lifting the ban on travel is a good first step toward a more rational policy," said Myron Brilliant, senior vice president for International Affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "The embargo was implemented to try to bring freedom to Cuba, but it made a martyr out of a tyrant and actually has helped prop up the regime."

Sponsors of the bill include agricultural associations who believe the lifting of travel restrictions to Cuba will increase U.S. agricultural sales of such commodities as poultry, wheat, and soybeans. Agricultural sales to Cuba have averaged $400 million annually since 2000.

"In the long term we need to do more to open up channels of trade [in Cuba], like we do in other countries," said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Proponents of the legislation point out that the 47-year-old embargo has done nothing to promote democracy or force the Cuban government to obey human rights standards.

"Human Rights Watch has been monitoring human rights in Cuba for nearly two decades, and the dismal state of human rights has not improved," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division at HRW.

Opponents include Cuban-born Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican, who told a news conference, "This bill would only act to provide tourism to Cuba which enriches those in power, while at the same time continuing the oppression of those who seek change."

The introduction of the new bill follows Congress’ approval in early March of a general appropriations bill that eases several restrictions on travel and sales to the Caribbean nation.

The bill denies funding to the U.S. Treasury Department to enforce two restrictions, including travel to Cuba by Cuban-Americans, imposed by former President George W. Bush.

The bill also provides for a general license for travel by U.S. companies and individuals to Cuba for the purpose of selling U.S. agricultural and medical goods.

A Bush-imposed regulation had required that businesses wishing to sell their products in Cuba had to apply for a specific license to go there on a case-by-case basis, a cumbersome and sometimes protracted process that discouraged many companies from going through the process.

"For the first time in almost a decade, Congress is acting to loosen the Cuba embargo and send these modest reforms to a president who has promised to change the policy rather than issue veto threats or keep things as they are," said a joint statement by several groups, including the Center for Democracy in the Americas and the Washington Office on Latin America.

Two of the bills three provisions are mainly symbolic. Thus, Cuban-Americans will still be permitted to visit their families once every three years, but the Treasury Department, which is charged with enforcing the embargo, will not be permitted to prosecute those who wish to travel more often, because no funds will be appropriated for that purpose.

Similarly, U.S. food and medical companies that export goods to Cuba will still be required under law to receive payment in cash before their shipments leave U.S. ports. But, under the new provision, Treasury will not be able to prosecute companies that receive cash on actual delivery.

The third provision – permitting Treasury to issue a general license for agricultural and medical businesses wishing to export goods to Cuba rather than forcing companies to approve requests on a case-by-case basis – does mark a real change in the underlying law, according to Jake Colvin, vice president of the National Foreign Trade Council, an association of major U.S. multinational corporations which strongly supports lifting the embargo.

"This will make travel to Cuba for a whole class of businesspeople much easier, and it will take the burden off Treasury to go through these applications so it can focus more on tracking al-Qaeda and other more serious transactions," he told IPS.

The easing of the Cuba embargo comes a month before President Barack Obama’s much-anticipated attendance at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago on April 17-19, where he will meet all of the hemisphere’s leaders except Cuban President Raúl Castro. Many hope the president will continue to ease the embargo and support the bill.

"President Obama is on the right track by restoring the rights of Cuban-Americans to visit and support their families, but we need to make clear that the constitutional right to travel belongs to all Americans no matter what their ethnic background or national origin might be," said Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

A companion measure has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Bill Delahunt and Jeff Flake, the co-chairs of the bipartisan House Cuba Working Group, with 121 cosponsors.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Marina Litvinsky

Marina Litvinsky writes for Inter Press Service.