Thu, Apr 02, 2009 - Page 7 News List

US lawmakers push to lift travel restrictions on Cuba

AP , WASHINGTON

It is time for the US Congress to end the restrictions that for more than half a century have prevented most Americans from visiting Cuba, a bipartisan group of senators said on Tuesday.

The lawmakers, at a news conference where they were joined by trade and human rights groups, also made clear that their proposal to allow travel should be a first step toward breaking down economic and trade barriers between the two countries.

The travel embargo, said Senator Byron Dorgan, a Democrat, is a “failed policy that has failed for 50 years.”

Lawmakers, backed by business and farm groups seeing new opportunities in Cuba, have been trying for years to chip away at the trade and travel bans imposed after former Cuban president Fidel Castro took power in Havana in 1959.

They have made little headway because of strong political resistance led by Florida’s influential Cuban-American community.

But the situation has change in the past year with an Castro turning political control over to his brother Raul and the election of US President Barack Obama, who like other Democratic presidents is more open to increasing nonpolitical contacts with the Cuban people.

The Obama administration, while steering clear of ending the trade embargo, this month backed changes making it easier for Cuban-Americans to visit and send remittances to their relatives on the island. It also is thought the administration could take other steps, such as revising rules that have impeded farm and medical sales to Cuba, before a summit of Latin American countries in Trinidad next month.

The Dorgan bill is cosponsored by Senator Richard Lugar, top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, among others. It would prevent the president from stopping travel to Cuba except in cases of war, imminent danger to public health or threats to the physical safety of US travelers.

Representatives Bill Delahunt, a Democrat, and Jeff Flake, a Republican, have an identical bill in the House of Representatives with 120 co-sponsors.

Dorgan said there are sufficient votes in both chambers to pass the legislation, although there is certain to be lively opposition. Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat and the son of Cuban immigrants, slowed confirmation of several administration officials and passage of a major spending bill because that bill contained the changes in rules on Cuban-American travel.

Cuban-born Senator Mel Martinez, a Republican, said he would continue to oppose the legislation.

“This is the time to support pro-democracy activists in Cuba, not provide the Castro regime with a resource windfall,” he said.

Supporters stressed that Cuba is the only country in the world to which the US bans travel: there are a few exceptions, such as for journalists or humanitarian visits. They said open travel would make Cubans more favorable to American people and ideas.

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