- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 7, 2009

MIAMI | Growing momentum in Washington for an overhaul of U.S. policy toward Cuba is getting a mixed reception among the nation’s fiercely anti-Castro Cuban-Americans.

President Obama has stopped short of endorsing an end to the trade embargo but has called for a new approach that would include easing restrictions on travel to Cuba. That, in turn, has spawned bills in Congress that would open the door to Americans visiting Cuba, and the measures are gathering support quickly.

“We can expect some relaxation, some changes in terms of the restrictions on family remittances and family travel,” Jeffrey Davidow, the White House adviser for the upcoming Summit of the Americas, said Monday.

Mr. Davidow said allowing Cuban-Americans to visit their relatives in the communist country and removing caps on money transfers will highlight the values of the Bush administration policies, which limited Cuban travel to immediate family members for two weeks every three years.

Opponents in the politically powerful Cuban-American community say U.S. visitors to Cuba would funnel money to the Castro regime’s military and secret police, which they say control the island’s tourism industry.

“The facts will show that opening up tourist travel to Cuba is hurtful to the people of Cuba and hurtful to American interests,” said Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba.

He said few, if any, tourist dollars go to improving the lives of impoverished Cubans.

Supporters, however, say ending the travel ban would create the potential for grass-roots change for Cuba’s poor by giving them greater access to U.S. dollars and, by way of tourists, U.S. ideals.

“More [American] travelers to Cuba would mean more money in the hands of ordinary Cubans, while more interactions between the Cuban and American people would promote understanding, respect and shared values,” said Jake Colvin, vice president for global affairs at the National Foreign Trade Council.

“Americans are extraordinary ambassadors to the world. It is time to fix this bizarre imbalance in U.S. policy, which permits Americans to travel to countries like Iran and North Korea but prohibits them from hopping on a plane to Cuba.”

On Monday, Mr. Davidow indicated Mr. Obama might announce some changes before attending the April 17-19 summit in Trinidad and Tobago.

In Washington, bipartisan sponsors of a House bill that would roll back the travel ban met Thursday with Cuban-American leaders and U.S. tourism industry officials to tout the legislation.

A Senate version was introduced last week by Sens. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat, and Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican.

Several similar bills have passed both chambers in recent years but stalled before reaching the president’s desk because of veto threats.

However, the bills’ supporters seem particularly confident this year after Mr. Obama campaigned on easing the Bush administration’s tight restrictions on family travel to Cuba and on remittances.

“Obama didn’t go this far in the campaign, but I certainly believe he thinks we would be better off not restricting Americans’ rights to travel. It comports with the rest of his foreign policy,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, who co-sponsored the House bill with Rep. Bill Delahunt, Massachusetts Democrat.

Former President George W. Bush imposed a once-every-three-year restriction on travel by Cuban-Americans to their homeland, a policy that proved unpopular among South Florida Cubans with family still on the island.

The Senate bill provoked the ire of Republican South Florida lawmakers including Sen. Mel Martinez and Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, both of whom denounced the proposal as an acquiescence to the Castro brothers.

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

Tourism from Canada, Europe and elsewhere already provides one of Cuba’s most important revenue streams for the Castro government, which is led by Fidel Castro’s younger brother, Raul.

While some contend that Cuba has become less repressive under Raul Castro, others say the mild reforms he has implemented — including permitting Cubans to stay in tourist hotels they can’t afford — is mere window dressing for the hemisphere’s last dictatorship.

“The regime is growing in its repression,” Mr. Diaz-Balart said, vowing to stop any effort to normalize relations with the island. “We defeat it every year.”“””