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House Votes to Ease Travel to Cuba

Call is made for third straight year despite Castro's moves this spring against dissidents. GOP leaders are likely to kill the measure.

September 10, 2003|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The House voted once again Tuesday to ease restrictions on American travel to Cuba, a sign that Fidel Castro's latest crackdown on dissidents has not extinguished Congress' desire to lift the 40-year-old limits.

When Castro jailed 75 pro-democracy dissidents in the spring, drawing worldwide condemnation, it was widely predicted that congressional pressure for an easing of travel and trade restrictions would subside.

The 227-188 vote marked the third year in a row that the House has taken such action, although the margin was not as wide as last year's 262-167 tally. Despite a presidential veto threat, the Senate is widely expected to follow suit in a few weeks.

The House GOP leadership is expected to kill the proposal in conference committee, as it did last year. Yet the vote suggests that Congress could one day force a historic broadening of contacts between the two countries.

Congressional advocates argued that no matter how Castro runs his country, engagement is a better approach than quarantine to push the communist island toward change.

"If the U.S. is serious about undermining Castro and bringing democratic reforms to Cuba, the best thing we can do is lessen Castro's control over the island by allowing Americans to travel to Cuba," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who offered the amendment lifting the travel ban.

Daniel Erickson, director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington, called the vote "very significant."

Amid predictions that congressional pressure would subside, the vote "says this constituency isn't going to go away," Erickson said.

The amendment's supporters include liberal Democrats; libertarians; the travel industry; and American farm interests, which hope to sell hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of commodities to Cuba.

Opponents of freer travel, led by conservative Cuban Americans, argue that tourism will prop up Castro's regime with hard currency but won't benefit ordinary, impoverished residents. President Bush, who is keenly interested in retaining the support of the politically active Cuban American community in the 2004 election, has taken this view and has threatened to veto measures that would ease travel or trade restrictions.

Lifting sanctions now, the White House said in a statement, "would provide a helping hand to a desperate and repressive regime at the expense of the Cuban people."

Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said during the House debate that drawing lucrative mass tourism from the United States was "the No. 1 goal of the dictatorship."

Under current U.S. travel rules, only academics, researchers, journalists, missionaries and Cuban Americans can visit the island legally. But enforcement of the rules has been spotty, and Americans can get to Cuba by traveling through a third country, such as Mexico. In 2001, 176,000 Americans visited the island, U.S. officials testified to Congress on Thursday.

Flake's amendment would remove the restrictions by taking away federal funding for enforcement. The language appears in a pending transportation and Treasury appropriations bill.

In its crackdown this year, the Cuban government accused dissidents of collaborating with the United States and imposed jail terms of up to 28 years. The move worsened relations with Washington and brought sanctions from the European Union, which has been an important source of revenue for Cuba.

William Reinsch, president of the anti-embargo National Foreign Trade Council, noted that Castro had alternated periods of seeming liberalization with crackdowns. But Americans are beginning to understand, he asserted, that U.S. steps to isolate Castro "don't punish him, it rewards him. It gives him an excuse to blame all Cuba's problems on us."

The travel amendment was designed to break that cycle by sending ordinary Americans to Cuba who would "spread our ideas, our values and our basic goodwill," said Reinsch, a former Commerce Department official. "That idea resonates. That's why I think you see the votes continuing to pile up."

But Dennis K. Hays, executive vice president of the pro-embargo Cuban American National Foundation, argued that the amendment represented a "throwaway vote" by lawmakers who do not understand that the restrictions on travel and trade are among the few levers the U.S. government can pull to influence an oppressive government.

With the opposition of Bush and the Republican leadership, he said, the measure will die as it has in the past two years.

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