GOP warming up to Cuba travel

Republican opposition to lifting the Cuban travel embargo is beginning to erode on Capitol Hill.

As President Obama looks to restore diplomatic relations with the country, a small but growing number of Republicans are getting behind a measure from Sens. Jeff Flake’s (Ariz.) and Jerry Moran (Kan.) that would lift the restrictions on American tourism in Cuba.

{mosads}The bipartisan Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act from Flake has 51 co-sponsors so far, and gained an additional 14 Republican supporters this year alone in the House and Senate. 

Bolstering Flake’s effort, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump has also expressed support for opening up Cuba, saying that he is “fine” with Obama’s attempt to normalize relations.

But there is still strong opposition among congressional Republicans to lifting the travel ban. Prominent lawmakers such as Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) remain staunchly opposed, arguing it would enrich the Castro government despite its history of human rights abuses.

“We all want more democracy in Cuba,” Flake told The Hill. “They see it a little differently than I do, but they know this is the direction it’s going.”

The Obama administration has loosened some of the Cuba travel restrictions to allow politicians, journalists, students, and Cuban-Americans who are meeting family to visit to the communist island. But only Congress can lift the restrictions entirely.

The same is true of the Cuban trade embargo, which prevents the majority of American businesses from operating on the island.

It’s an issue that has divided lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for more than five decades.

“I’ve had this argument with [Flake] for years,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.). “Our currency is keeping this dictatorship afloat. The Cuban travel industry is largely run by the Castro regime, so our money is flowing into their coffers and keeping the dictatorship afloat.”

But critics of the embargo say keeping it only place only worsens the human rights abuses that critics invoke.

“The more tourists you have with cameras, at some point it begins to put pressure on the Cuban government to treat their people more appropriately,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) told The Hill.  

“Are the security forces more or less likely to beat up a lady in white if there are a bunch of tourists holding video cameras?”

Cassidy signed on as a co-sponsor of Flake’s bill last month.

Flake told The Hill momentum is building among Republicans who want to lift the Cuba travel restrictions.

“Believe me, we’ve got more than 60 votes,” Flake told The Hill, adding that he’s spoken with Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), and believes they will sign onto the measure in the near future.

A House measure similar to Flake’s led by Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) has 130 co-sponsors, including nearly two-dozen Republicans.

But there are staunch opponents of lifting the travel ban in the House Republican Conference.

Among them is Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), one of the most vocal critics of President Obama’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba.

“Cuban people are no more free today than they were before Obama’s terrible deal” Ros-Lehtinen said in 2014.

“Lifting the tourism ban would infuse the Castro dictatorship with billions of dollars, which it would use to more aggressively oppose U.S. interests in our hemisphere and to further repress the Cuban people,” Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) told McClatchy when the bill was introduced.

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