Key Congressional Committee Votes to Lift Cuba Travel Ban

In a major victory for anti-embargo forces, a key Congressional committee voted here Wednesday to lift restrictions on travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba.

If passed by both houses of Congress, the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act will also ease restrictions on U.S. agricultural exports to the Caribbean island that were imposed by former President George W. Bush.

"I am proud to say that today, the House Agriculture Committee took a courageous vote to end the short-sighted and failed policy that limits American agriculture’s access to the Cuban market," said Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson, the chairman of the Agriculture Committee of the House of Representatives who, along with a Republican colleague, Rep. Jerry Moran, was the bill’s chief sponsor. 

"An unprecedented coalition of agriculture, business, religious and social organizations have endorsed (the bill), and today’s vote demonstrates that Congress is ready to change our nation’s approach on this issue," he added. 

"We have tried to isolate Cuba for more than 50 years, and it has not worked. As it has in other countries, perhaps increasing trade with Cuba will encourage democratic progress." 

The bill, which was approved on a 25-20 vote that broke mainly along party lines, will now go to the House Democratic leadership which will decide whether to send it to the House floor. 

Sources on Capitol Hill told IPS they believe the decision is likely to be affirmative and that a floor vote could take place by the end of July. 

If it passes, the bill, entitled "The Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act," would go the Senate where pro-embargo forces – mainly Republicans, but also a handful of anti-Castro Democrats – are in the minority but can resort to a number of procedural moves that could delay or even prevent a vote from taking place. 

Still, supporters of lifting the travel ban and facilitating more trade with Cuba were jubilant about Wednesday’s Committee vote, depicting it as a major breakthrough in the decades-long battle to end the 49-year-old embargo. 

"A committee that comes from a pro-trade, pro-business, and politically very centrist perspective has now called on Congress to lift the ban on travel," said Geoffrey Thale, a Cuba specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). 

"That’s an important political message in itself to the Senate, certainly to President (Barack) Obama, and also to the Cuban government, which last month opened a promising dialogue with the Cuban Catholic Church," according to Thale, who noted that two political prisoners have recently been released and a number of others have been moved to detention facilities closer to their homes. "This should encourage that dialogue," he added. 

"We commend the House Agriculture Committee for favorably reporting (the bill)," said Jake Colvin, vice president for Global Trade Issues of the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), a lobby group representing more than 300 major U.S.- based companies engaged in international business. 

"Today’s vote is the first step towards a more rational foreign policy towards Cuba, and one that the business community strongly supports," he added. 

He noted that the NFTC, as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Farmers Union, has included the bill on their scorecards for rating lawmakers on their legislative records before the November elections due its importance as the only major trade-related bill on which the House will have voted this year. 

That will add to pressure on pro-business incumbents – mostly Republicans – to vote in favor of the bill if and when it reaches the floors of either house. 

U.S. farmers have been eager to increase their exports to Cuba since then president Bill Clinton relaxed the embargo in 1999, and Congress followed with its own reform bill the following year. Despite severe conditions imposed on their sale and shipment to Cuba by the Bush administration, however, exports continued to climb during his administration. Since 2000, more than four billion dollars in agricultural goods have been sent to Cuba. 

Under the Peterson-Moran bill, the Bush conditions would be substantially eased. Cuban importers, for example, would no longer have to pay for the goods in advance of their actual shipment. In addition, U.S. banks, which were barred by Bush from handling such transactions, may now participate in their financing. 

"Prior to the embargo, the United States accounted for nearly 70 percent of Cuba’s international trade. Cuba was the seventh-largest market for U.S. exporters, particularly U.S. farmers and ranchers," noted Bruce Josten, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in a letter to lawmakers before Wednesday’s vote. 

He cited a March study by Texas A&M University that found that "easing restrictions on agricultural exports and lifting the travel ban, as proposed by (the bill), could result in up to 365 million dollars in additional sales of U.S. goods with a total economic impact of 1.1 billion dollars and create 6,000 new jobs in the United States." 

Like the business sector, the U.S. tourism industry has tried for years to ease the ban on travel. First imposed in 1961, the ban was lifted under President Jimmy Carter, only to be re-imposed by his successor, Ronald Reagan. 

Clinton, who sought to encourage "people-to-people" exchanges, eased the ban, only to be reversed by Bush, who also severely limited the frequency of visits that Cuban Americans could make to the island to visit their families. 

At various times under Bush, majorities in both houses of Congress approved provisions in larger bills that would have denied funds to the Treasury Department to enforce the travel ban. But each time the administration and anti-Castro lawmakers succeeded in having those provisions deleted before final passage of the underlying bills. 

In that respect, the Peterson-Moran bill marks the first- ever "free-standing bill" to end the travel ban, and most political observers believe that majorities in both houses will vote for it if given a chance to do so. 

In the upper chamber, however, several influential senators, including Majority Leader Harry Reid and Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, have opposed lifting the ban and may resort to procedural methods to prevent it from reaching the floor. 

Still, anti-embargo forces, who have been disappointed by Obama’s failure so far to take more aggressive steps to ease the embargo, said the Committee’s action gave them hope that Washington’s approach toward Havana was indeed changing. 

"The U.S. needs a new Cuba policy, and the Peterson-Moran bill is a decisive change in the right direction," said Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas. 

"By increasing food exports and repealing the travel ban, this legislation will provide more jobs for Americans and Cubans, and move our country from ‘helpless bystander’ to supporting Cubans as they debate and decide the future for themselves." 

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.