Debate over travel to Cuba heats up

A congressional debate over whether all Americans should be able to travel freely to Cuba appears to be heating up.

The House Agriculture Committee last month approved a measure that allows travel to Cuba and eases restrictions on U.S. commodities sold there. The measure still needs approval from the Foreign Affairs Committee before it can come to the floor for a vote, but Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.) has indicated that he supports lifting the ban.  

”I have long believed that the nearly fifty year old travel ban to Cuba simply has not worked to help the Cuban people in any way,” he said in prepared remarks. “It has not hurt the Castros as it was intended to do, but it has hurt U.S. citizens.”

The legislation builds upon efforts by President Obama in 2009 to ease travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans and would allow virtually all Americans to visit the island. Proponents for ending the ban contend it will boost trade between the two countries.

But not everyone is on board with opening the travel door to Cuba.

Sen. Robert MenendezRobert MenendezOvernight Cybersecurity: Senate narrowly rejects expanding FBI surveillance powers Senate narrowly rejects new FBI surveillance Kaine, Murphy push extension of Iran sanctions MORE (D-N.J.) on Friday reiterated his strong opposition to lifting the ban.

“I want to make it absolutely clear that I will oppose — and filibuster if need be — any effort to ease regulations that stand to enrich a regime that denies its own people basic human rights,” he said.

“The fact is the big corporate interests behind this misguided attempt to weaken the travel ban could not care less whether the Cuban people are free,” Menendez said. “They care only about opening a new market and increasing their bottom line. This is about the color of money, not the desire for freedom.”

Like Menendez, opponents to the ban argue easing travel restrictions will funnel money to the Castro regime and essentially fund activities that will provide little benefit to the Cuban people.

“The very fact that a travel bill has moved through the House Agriculture Committee makes one wonder why American agriculture interests would even care about travel to Cuba,” Menendez said. “One can only assume it’s about generating increased tourism dollars for the Castro regime to buy more agricultural products.”

Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, which supports the travel ban, told The Hill that lawmakers in favor of easing restrictions understand that the votes are not there and have resorted to hiding the provision in noncontroversial bills to get it passed.

“What they’re trying to do is package it with an agricultural bill in order to get it through the back door,” he said, adding, “They’re basically trying to maneuver this any way they possibly can without addressing the travel issue specifically.”

Last month, Claver-Carone’s organization joined nearly 500 organizations that oppose lifting the ban and warned Congress that nothing good would come from allowing free travel between the two countries.

“[The] below signatories believe that the freedom of Cuba will not arrive by means of the pocketbook nor the lips of libidinous tourists, who are aseptic to the pain of the Cuban family,” their letter states, adding, “For that reason we suggest that you maintain a firm and coherent policy of pressure and condemnation against the tyranny of Havana.”

When, or if, the Foreign Affairs Committee will vote on the legislation remains to be seen. A Berman spokesman did not respond to a call about timing for the measure.

“That’s where the current question is at,” Claver-Carone said. ”But it’s pretty clear that they do not have the votes on the floor.”