Sides gear up for fight over U.S. ban on travel to Cuba

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 19, 2009

A battle over Cuba policy is escalating in Congress, with proponents saying they have their best chance in years of repealing the ban on U.S. tourist travel to the island.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee has scheduled a hearing Thursday to galvanize support for scrapping the ban as opponents rally to block any changes. Proponents have lined up a powerful and diverse roster of supporters, including U.S. farmers, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Cuban American veterans of the Bay of Pigs and the Iraq war. The travel site Orbitz has collected over 100,000 signatures on a petition to eliminate the ban.

The congressional maneuvering comes as the Obama administration makes small-scale efforts to engage the Cuban government. President Obama in April removed limits on Americans' visits to relatives on the island and allowed U.S. telecommunications companies to operate more freely there. But Obama has insisted that Cuban democratic reforms precede normalized relations.

A report issued Wednesday by Human Rights Watch said there had been little change in Cuba's repressive policies since Fidel Castro relinquished power to his brother Raul three years ago, with scores of Cubans detained as political prisoners in that period.

Travel to Cuba by Americans was effectively banned in 1963. In 1977, the Carter administration eliminated most travel restrictions, but many were reimposed by subsequent administrations. A growing number of lawmakers have argued in recent years that the sanctions have not been successful. But President George W. Bush threatened to veto bills softening the sanctions and tightened travel regulations.

In recent months, a bill ending the travel ban sponsored by Reps. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has picked up 178 co-sponsors -- approaching the 218 votes needed for passage. With Democrats controlling the White House and holding a significant majority in Congress, proponents say they think their moment has come.

"There's a better chance of passage than ever before," said Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

But supporters of the ban have fought back and say they think they can block the bill. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) this month signed by 53 Democrats opposing any loosening of sanctions.

"Cuba has not even come close to warranting a change in their relationship with the United States," the congresswoman said. Her letter said loosening sanctions "would send a devastating message to Cuba's opposition movement and legitimize an ailing dictatorship."

Worried about the split in the Democratic caucus, some lawmakers are now looking to a bipartisan bill being drafted by Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.) and others that could pick up extra votes by both abolishing the travel restrictions and reducing barriers for U.S. farm exports to Cuba. No action on the travel ban is expected before early next year.

While the House could muster the votes to lift the travel ban, it faces a tougher fight in the Senate, where a prominent Cuban American -- Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) -- has indicated that he will try to block it.

Pro-embargo groups have dramatically shifted their campaign contributions to Democrats since the party took control of Congress in 2006, according to a study released this week by Public Campaign, a nonprofit group. For example, the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee gave 76 percent of its donations to Democrats in the past year, the study found. During the 2004 election cycle, the anti-Castro group overwhelmingly supported Republicans, according to the study.

Overall, the study found that embargo supporters have contributed more than $10 million to federal candidates since the 2004 election cycle. The group also identified more than a dozen lawmakers who changed their position on easing the embargo within months of receiving money from anti-Castro groups.

Mauricio Claver-Carone, a board member of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, said such contributions are "a laughable fraction" of the resources of agricultural and business groups who are pushing to relax sanctions.

Staff writer Dan Eggen contributed to this report.

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