WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of senators predicted Tuesday that Congress was ready to pass legislation to allow all Americans to travel to Cuba.
Removing the travel ban would produce a burst of tourism, create thousands of jobs and generate as much as $1.6 billion in business a year, an independent research group said.
A Senate news conference Tuesday and one in the House set for Thursday reflect new attempts to lift the travel ban, a key part of the U.S. trade embargo imposed after Fidel Castro took power in Havana in 1959. The broader trade embargo would remain in place.
Sponsors said the bill would free Americans to travel to the one place in the world they can't go and encourage Cubans to push for democratic reforms by exposing them to new people and information.
"Punishing the American people in our effort to somehow deal a blow to the Castro government has not made any sense at all," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.). "At long last, this policy, which has been in place for 50 years and has not worked, will finally be removed."
Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) strongly opposes the measure. He warned that flooding Cuba with tourists and dollars would only sustain the Castro regime.
"Having tourists on Cuban beaches is not going to change the equation of how to create the opportunity for democratic institutions in Cuba," Martinez said. "It's only going to enrich those who are oppressing the Cuban people and provide them with more economic means with which to do that."
Dorgan and fellow sponsors sense an opportunity to change U.S. policy now that President Obama has replaced George W. Bush in the White House and Castro has turned power over to his brother, Raul Castro.
Obama has ordered a review of U.S. policy on Cuba and last month loosened restrictions to let Cuban Americans visit relatives. Journalists can travel to Cuba, as can people on humanitarian missions.
On one side of the debate in Congress are liberal Democrats, Republican free-traders and farm-state members of both parties who seek a wider market for food sales.
Unfettered travel would make it easier to sell more products, they contend. They are backed by the American Farm Bureau Federation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Senate sponsors include Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and Michael B. Enzi (R-Wyo.). House sponsors include Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).
On the other side are Cuban Americans and conservatives, who remain alarmed by a communist island 90 miles from the Florida Keys.
If travel limits were lifted, about 3 million Americans would visit Cuba each year, according to a 2002 study by the Brattle Group, economic consultants in Washington.
The increase in air travel, cruises and a ripple effect through the travel industry would produce $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion a year, the group estimated, creating as many as 23,000 jobs.
Martinez accused the Chamber of Commerce and business interests of seeking profits at the expense of freedom and democracy.
"They are not acting from a moral standpoint," he said. "They are simply acting from an economic advantage standpoint."