Congress reviewing Cuban sanctions, may lift travel ban

Cubans drive along Havana's coast. Business groups see vast potential for U.S. tourism on the island.
Cubans drive along Havana's coast. Business groups see vast potential for U.S. tourism on the island. (Javier Galeano/associated Press)
By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Mojitos at Varadero Beach . . . fishing in the waters Hemingway immortalized . . . dinner and a show at the Tropicana: A long list of currently forbidden pleasures will become legal for Americans under pending legislation that would lift central provisions of the United States' half-century embargo of Cuba.

The bill is being pushed by business and agriculture groups that have long argued that the Cold War-era sanctions against Cuba should be lifted, but it is opposed by an influential anti-communist lobby, which is against Cuba's ruling Castro family.

But at a time when the Obama administration is fighting to boost U.S. exports, supporters of the bill argue that they have their best chance yet to reopen a country famous for its white sand and hand-rolled cigars, featured in American pop culture from "I Love Lucy" to the "Godfather" films.

The sanctions have been in place since 1959, when communist leader Fidel Castro took over the country and nationalized the holdings of U.S. investors, and they became entrenched in U.S. foreign policy three years later, when Castro tried to import Soviet nuclear weapons.

A bill approved by the House Agriculture Committee last week would repeal a broad travel ban on Americans visiting the island -- leaving the broader sanctions in place but taking a major step toward weakening them. It also would loosen rules that allow food sales to the country.

Such efforts have come before, and there is no guarantee of success this time. The bill narrowly passed the Agriculture Committee, 25 to 20, and must clear the House Financial Services Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee before a floor vote is possible.

The Obama administration in theory supports liberalizing relations with Cuba but has expressed disappointment at the pace of reform under current Cuban leader Raúl Castro, and did not testify at hearings on the pending legislation. Mike Hammer, spokesman for the National Security Council, was noncommittal on the substance of the legislation, saying the White House supported Congress's "robust" discussion of Cuba policy as an example of the type of democratic freedom that it would like for the Cuban people.

In addition, what had been a budding agricultural trade with Cuba has foundered. First authorized in 2000, U.S. farm sales to Cuba grew steadily through 2008, peaking at more than $700 million and accounting for nearly 40 percent of the country's agricultural imports.

But financing restrictions -- the purchases must be handled through banks in a third country, and credit can't be offered -- and the economic downturn have undercut those sales as the country shifted to suppliers in Brazil, Canada and elsewhere, according to a study submitted to Congress by researchers at Texas A&M University.

The bill tries to reverse that by removing the financing restrictions, and putting Cuban importers on a more even footing with other purchasers of U.S. farm products. The current rules "have hand-delivered an export market in our own back yard to the Brazilians, the Europeans and other competitors around the world," said Rep. Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.), chairman of the Agriculture Committee, at a March hearing on the legislation.

Lifting the travel rules, however, is potentially the more profound change. Americans are currently allowed to travel to Cuba under certain circumstances -- if they have a special permit to promote agricultural sales, for example, or, as of last year, if they are going to visit members of their immediate family.

Tourism is still prohibited, and business groups say they see the potential for hundreds of thousands of Americans to begin vacationing in Cuba if the rules are changed. That, they argue, might be a more effective tool for changing the country's politics; it would also be a step toward business groups' ultimate goal of lifting the embargo altogether.

With little American presence there since the late 1950s, Cuba is considered a ripe market for U.S. hotel and service companies -- a potentially profitable Caribbean playground.

Supporters of the bill acknowledge that the fight is likely to intensify in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a forum where Cuba's restrictions on political rights and detention of political prisoners likely will get as much attention as its market for rice, soybeans and frozen chickens received in the agriculture committee.

Still, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups are planning a push, and have made the pending bill one of the priority items on which it is rating legislators.

"Cuba has been frozen in time. Its leadership is a relic," said Myron Brilliant, the Chamber's senior vice president for international affairs. "If we want to improve the environment in Cuba, we have to find ways to do more trade and have more interaction."

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