COHA Opinion: Lifting the Travel and Trade Restrictions on Cuba Closer than Ever

Since 1960, Washington has been seeking ways to punish Cuba for its transgressions, real and imagined. The embargo was also meant to force the Cuban leadership, as well as the island’s population to repent for worshipping their communist canons. Fifty years later, the U.S. has yet to see any sign that its embargo, with which Washington almost alone complies, has never been powerful enough to oust Havana, only to wound it. Today, there is legislation working its way through both the House of Representatives (H.R. 4645) and the Senate (S. 428) that would lift the travel ban on Americans wanting to visit Cuba and eliminate many of the restrictions on U.S. food exports to the island. The question is, will the Obama administration provide the necessary leadership to round up sufficient votes in congress to enact the measures.

H.R. 4645, referred to as the “Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act,” was introduced by Representative Peterson (D-MN). It would not only lift the travel restrictions against all American citizens intent on traveling to Cuba, but would also loosen existing restrictions on food exports there. The passage of the legislation by the House of Representatives and Senate would represent the most progressive travel and trade reform bill on Cuba ever achieved in Congress. The present bipartisan support for this bill gives it a leg up over previously proposed legislation. While supporters of the bill still must overcome the rabid anti-Cuba House faction, the apparent majority in the Congress is pushing for a more rational route for a more relaxed U.S. policy toward Cuba. Even though the bill still has two more House committee votes to traverse, there has been less opposition to the measure there than in the Senate.

Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) introduced Senate bill S. 428, the “Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act,” in February of 2009. This measure only addresses lifting the travel ban and does not deal with the issue of food exports to Cuba. S. 428 has yet to be voted upon by the Foreign Relations Committee; however, hard-line senators stuck in a Cold War frame of mind have promised to filibuster it if it comes to be debated on the Senate floor. The most vociferous foe of the Senate version bill is Senator Menendez (D-NJ), well known for his explosive rants against the Castro regime. After the House committee on Agriculture passed H.R. 4645, Menendez issued a statement lashing out against agribusinesses for caring only “about padding their profits by opening a new market.” Menendez sees making money off a communist country as morally reprehensible. However, he uttered no such biting statements about U.S. trade with China or Vietnam. So why is Cuba treated so irreverently by the likes of Menendez, whose indignation when it comes to dictatorships is so hugely selective?

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