WASHINGTON — The House voted Tuesday night to lift restrictions on travel to Cuba, signaling growing opposition to the 42-year-old economic embargo and setting up a likely collision with President Bush.
By a vote of 262 to 167, lawmakers voted to cut off the federal funds used to enforce restrictions on travel to the island. A Senate committee has adopted similar language. Bush has vowed to give the bill the first veto of his term if the provision survives the forthcoming House-Senate conference.
In a statement, the White House said the president would be urged to veto the spending bill if it contains an end to the travel ban. "Lifting the sanctions now would provide a helping hand to a desperate and repressive regime," it said.
Leading the fight for the change was a coalition of farm-state Republicans and northeastern Democrats who have battled Cuban Americans and their allies in the White House and Congress over the issue. "Americans can travel to North Korea and Iran, two-thirds of the axis of evil, but not to Cuba," said Rep. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.). "That makes no sense, I would suggest."
Supporters of the embargo--implemented when Cuba nationalized foreign companies and other property in 1960--have long contended that the United States needs to limit trade with and travel to the island nation, about 90 miles south of Florida, to hasten the downfall of President Fidel Castro and his communist government. But the reformers contend that the embargo has failed to accomplish this, and that the better way to move toward a new regime is to step up the interaction between impoverished Cuba and the outside world.
The best way to change Cuba "is to have American travelers ... and American ideas go to Cuba," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who sponsored the proposal as an amendment to the $18.5-billion Treasury-Postal Service appropriations bill. "For 42 years, we've had the same failed policy."
Under the ban, only academics, researchers, journalists, missionaries and Cuban Americans can travel to Cuba legally. Even Cuban Americans have only a limited travel privilege, although enforcement of the rules is generally acknowledged to be spotty, and Americans can get to Cuba by traveling through a third country.
By unofficial estimates, Americans make 176,000 trips to the island a year. Some analysts believe that the largest single group traveling to the island is Cuban Americans making multiple trips.
Also adopted, 251-177, was an amendment from Flake that would cut off funds to enforce restrictions on the amount of money Americans can send to their family and friends in Cuba. Current rules, which are rarely enforced, permit Americans to send a maximum of $1,200 a year to the island.
The House defeated, 204-226, an amendment from Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) that would have cut off federal funds used to enforce all aspects of the embargo.
Congress has shown a gradually increasing desire to ease the embargo. Last year, a proposal to do so passed the House, 240-186. But it was dropped before the Senate completed action on the bill to avoid any partisan clash in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Farm-state lawmakers believe that opening trade with Cuba promises them a major market for their products. Some agricultural advocates have contended that annual U.S. farm sales to Cuba could be more than $1 billion a year. But defenders of the embargo scoff at such estimates and say that Cuba is a deeply indebted country that has proved a tough market.
Bush, who is keenly interested in political support from Florida, where his brother Jeb is running for reelection as governor this year, has stood strongly behind the Cuban American community. But congressional analysts said he would probably prefer to avoid a veto of the appropriations bill, which would force Congress to start over on critical legislation in an election year when lawmakers want to be out campaigning.
The Treasury-Postal appropriations bill focuses primarily on law enforcement and anti-terrorism programs, increasing funds for the Customs Service to tighten border controls.