Momentum Grows for Relaxing U.S. Policy on Cuba; Bill Would Lift Travel Ban

It's time for Congress to end restrictions that have prevented most Americans from visiting Cuba, a bipartisan group of senators said Tuesday. In Miami's Little Havana, residents expressed mixed emotions to the new legislation. Video by AP
By Shailagh Murray and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 30, 2009

Roughly a year after Fidel Castro stepped aside and handed much of the responsibility for leading Cuba to his brother Raúl, there is new momentum in Washington for eliminating the ban on most U.S. travel to the island nation and for reexamining the severe limitations on U.S.-Cuban economic exchanges.

At a Capitol Hill news conference scheduled for tomorrow, a wide array of senators and interest groups -- including Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron L. Dorgan (N.D.); Banking Committee Chairman Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.); Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; and Human Rights Watch -- will rally around a potentially historic bill to lift the travel ban.

President Obama called repeatedly during the campaign last year for a "new strategy" toward Cuba, and this month he lifted severe Bush-era restrictions on travel and remittances to the island by Cuban Americans with relatives there, after the 2009 spending measure banned using taxpayer money to enforce them. The Treasury Department also said it would ease licensing requirements for trade-related travel by U.S. citizens.

Although the decision is not yet final, Obama is expected to further loosen remaining travel restrictions for all Americans by the time he goes to the April 17-19 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, senior administration officials said. Such restrictions were first imposed in 1961 and have been progressively tightened since then. Removing all sanctions requires congressional action, but one senior official said that Treasury has wide leeway to ease the licensing requirements that limit travel.

A bipartisan majority in Congress, including farm-state Republicans looking for new agricultural markets, has long advocated lifting the sanctions to some degree. Provisions to ease the restrictions on travel and agricultural sales were repeatedly attached to legislation passed during the Bush administration, only to be abandoned in closed-door reconciliation conferences as the threat of a presidential veto loomed.

The new bill was first proposed two years ago, dying in committee, but this time it has gained 18 co-sponsors, including eight Democratic committee chairmen. Meanwhile, new legislation was offered in the House last week to further loosen trade restrictions for agricultural products.

The handful of Cuban Americans in Congress, most of them Republicans, have long been in the vanguard that advocated stricter restrictions and opposed a new outreach toward Cuba. But none has been more stalwart than Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).

The son of Cuban immigrants, Menendez has risked the goodwill of the White House and his standing within the party to press the continuation of sanctions and travel restrictions against Havana's totalitarian regime. He riled many of his colleagues this month by blocking two of Obama's science nominees and by holding up the 2009 spending measure to protest the Cuba provisions it included.

The bill to be unveiled tomorrow in the Senate goes well beyond the measure Menendez just protested by removing legal barriers to all travel to Cuba, as opposed to just family-related visits.

Lugar released a report in late February that calls for a dramatic overhaul of U.S.-Cuba policy. "Economic sanctions are a legitimate tool of U.S. foreign policy and they have sometimes achieved their aims, as in the case of apartheid in South Africa," he wrote in a letter accompanying the report. "After 47 years, however, the unilateral embargo on Cuba has failed to achieve its stated purpose of 'bringing democracy to the Cuban people,' while it may have been used as a foil by the regime to demand further sacrifices from Cuba's impoverished population."

In a lengthy speech from the Senate floor this month, Menendez shot back at Lugar: "Over the years, millions of Europeans, Canadians, Mexicans, South and Central Americans, among others, have visited Cuba, invested in Cuba, spent billions of dollars, signed trade agreements and engaged politically. And what has been the result of all of that money and all of that engagement? The regime has not opened up; on the contrary, it has used resources to become more oppressive."

Fellow Democrats were surprised by the force of his defiant, public opposition to a provision that enjoys broad support in the party. Menendez also serves as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a coveted leadership post that demands a degree of party loyalty.

Some liberal donors protested doing business with a man they thought was taking an outdated stance, and some of Menendez's fellow senators questioned whether they had picked the wrong person for the DSCC job. Dodd, for instance, is a top GOP target in 2010. He has called U.S.-Cuba policy "an abject failure." Some Democrats have wondered privately how hard Menendez would work to defend his colleague.

"Anyone who knows me knows my views are both heartfelt and principled," Menendez responded. "It should be of no surprise to anyone that I have used political capital in my many years in the House and the Senate on this issue."

Menendez said he would continue to use every available tool to preserve U.S. sanctions until political conditions change in Cuba, although he attributed much of his earlier ire to the fact that the provision had been inserted with no notice into an unrelated bill.

"If you want to change Cuba policy, fine, let's duke it out," Menendez said. "Let's duke it out on the floor and let's have our debate and let's have our amendments. Let's know who's for democracy and human rights and who wants to sell their stuff no matter how many people are in prison. That's fine. At least it will be an honest discussion."

Menendez and other proponents of the current restrictions warn that free-flowing trade and tourism would only enrich the Castro regime and defuse tensions within the Cuban population -- friction that is key, they argue, to fostering political change.

Dorgan, who is the lead author of the unrestricted travel measure, said Menendez and a small, bipartisan group of House hard-liners are fighting a losing battle. "It's sort of all over but the shouting, whether our country should maintain this embargo," Dorgan said.

Menendez "has a right to take a position and assert it very strongly," Dorgan said. But, he added, "it's pretty clear to everybody that this is a failed strategy and has been a failed strategy for a long time."

Although Obama last year proposed a new direction with Cuba, he has yet to indicate he favors lifting all economic sanctions. In remarks before the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami last May, he asserted, "It's time for more than tough talk that never yields results. It's time for a new strategy. There are no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban Americans. That's why I will immediately allow unlimited family travel and remittances to the island."

But on a separate CANF questionnaire, Obama wrote that, while U.S.-Cuba policy "has failed," he would "maintain the embargo as an inducement for democratic change on the Island."

At a warm-up summit to this week's meeting of the Group of 20 major industrialized nations, Vice President Biden said in Chile this weekend that the United States had no plans to scrap the Cuban trade embargo. He said that the Obama administration thinks "Cuban people should determine their own fate and they should be able to live in freedom." But he added that a "transition" was needed in U.S.-Cuba relations.

Menendez said he was open to a debate on Cuba, provided his colleagues refrain from sneaking language into unrelated bills. "A full and open discussion of the real situation in Cuba is timely," he said on the Senate floor this month. "We should gather evidence, bring a wide range of voices to the table and make careful and thoughtful considerations of their implications."

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