Skepticism greets bill to lift 50-year-old Cuba travel restrictions

It may not quite be time to start planning that trip to Havana.

Although President Barack Obama voiced support during his campaign for easing travel restrictions to Cuba, a number of House members from his own party on Thursday expressed concern with a bill that would allow all Americans to visit the island for the first time in 50 years.

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Proponents remain hopeful that the bill, sponsored by Reps. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), will pass Congress, given Obama’s stated support for loosening restrictions. Key members of Congress, like Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also support lifting the ban.

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also backs lifting the restriction. He said the ban had done little to effect change in Cuba and noted that the island nation is the only country Americans are banned from visiting.

“Letting U.S. citizens travel to Cuba is not a gift to the Castros — it is in our national interest. Waiting for a concession from Havana before we do something on behalf of our own citizens perversely puts the Cuban government in charge of that decision,” Berman said.

But several Democrats on the committee on Thursday indicated they were not yet on board. Congress has already eased the restriction somewhat, allowing Cuban-Americans to travel to Cuba to see relatives. Lawmakers said the United States should hold out lifting all restrictions to push the Castro regime to make concessions of its own, like releasing all political prisoners. Easing travel restrictions would likely provide a boost in tourism revenue for Cuba.

“Now that we’ve extended the olive branch, it’s time for the Castro regime to respond,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said.

Reps. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) expressed support for the ban, and Rep. Mike McMahon (D-N.Y.) read out the State Department’s travel advisory for his opening statement. The advisory warned to be wary of traveling to the communist country because of its repression of its own people.

Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) said allowing more Americans to visit Cuba would help encourage democracy to take root there. But he too said the United States should use the ban as a negotiating tool to force more changes from the island’s government.

“Why not use this opportunity to get something out of it?” Scott said. “We need to go to the Castro brothers and say, ‘Let’s make a deal.’ ”

Flake defended his bill, saying the ban was a sanction on Americans, not Cubans. He joked he was elected to be a member of Congress, not “a travel agent.”

The Arizona Republican said the travel restriction was tamping down on Americans’ freedom and amounted to an unnecessary intrusion of government into their lives.

Flake was the lone Republican during the hearing to come out in favor of ending the travel ban, although a number of GOP members have signed on as co-sponsors to the bill.

Applause erupted from the hearing’s audience as several GOP panel members made impassioned statements against Fidel Castro and said the ban must remain in place. They believed the extra tourism revenue from visitors from the U.S. would prop up a failing regime.

Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) said the bill was a “bailout” to the Castros. Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) cheered, “Viva Cuba libre!” before being cut off by Berman.

Panel members heard from a diverse set of witnesses, including retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey and Miriam Leiva, a journalist and activist who spoke to the hearing via teleconference from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Both were in favor of the ending the ban. Other witnesses said it should remain in place.

With Obama’s election last year, several organizations saw a fundamental shift in the making for U.S. policy toward Cuba. A broad swath of groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops support ending the ban on travel.

Delahunt and Flake’s bill has 178 co-sponsors, while a similar measure in the Senate has 33 co-sponsors. Delahunt says his bill will get a House floor vote “probably early next year.”

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