Bill to repeal Cuba travel ban gains support

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A bipartisan group of senators is calling for the United States to end its almost five-decade ban on travel to Cuba, and they say they have the votes in Congress - after years of failed attempts - to pull it off.

Increased travel to Cuba will further the cause of democracy, advance human rights, and benefit U.S. agriculture and businesses, the lawmakers said Tuesday while introducing legislation to open the island nation for tourism.

“This policy has done nothing to weaken the Castro regime,” said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat and one of the bill’s four Senate lead sponsors. “It’s long past the time to change this ill-advised policy.”

The lawmakers said it was unfair and unwise foreign policy to restrict travel to Cuba while allowing Americans to visit other communist countries such as China and Vietnam.

“We have been trying the same thing [with Cuba] for over 40 years, and our strategy has not worked,” said Sen. Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican and another bill co-sponsor. “It is time for a different policy - one that goes further than embargoes and restrictive and confusing travel policies.”

Mr. Dorgan said there are enough votes in both chambers to pass the legislation, although it’s expected to be opposed by conservative Republicans, including Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, who immigrated to the United States from Cuba as a child.

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

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, declined to predict whether the measure would succeed and would only acknowledge that he expected a vote.

“It’s rarely a year goes by since I’ve been in the Senate that we don’t have a vote on Cuba, and I’m sure this year will be no different,” Mr. Reid said in a dismissive way.

The bill would let Americans travel to Cuba under the same terms that cover most of the world: freely with required papers, with exceptions for war, imminent danger to public health or threats to the physical safety of U.S. travelers. Sens. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also co-sponsored the measure.

Reps. Bill Delahunt, Massachusetts Democrat, and Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, have an identical bill in the House with 120 co-sponsors.

The measure has the backing of trade and farm associations, who have eyed Cuba for its potential business opportunities since trade and travel bans were imposed shortly after Fidel Castro took power in 1959.

“Denying American workers and farmers the chance to sell their goods in Cuba goes against America’s values and delivers commercial opportunities to other countries,” said Myron Brilliant, U.S. Chamber of Commerce senior vice president for international affairs.

Florida’s influential Cuban-American community, which traditionally supports the Republican Party and strongly opposes normalizing relations with Cuba under a Castro regime, for years have rallied against attempts to lift or loosen travel restrictions with the island nation.

But the aging Mr. Castro relinquished power to his brother, Raul, last year. And President Obama is more willing to opening contact with Cuba than previous administrations.

The Obama administration last month returned travel restrictions to the Cuba to pre-Bush-era level, meaning Cuban-Americans can now visit their relatives on the island once per year.

The confidence expressed by lawmakers supporting the bill comes at a time when attitudes toward the decades-long U.S. trade embargo against Cuba are changing, said Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Cuba Study Group.

The critics’ “argument is that this a unilateral concession to the Cuban regime,” Mr. Bilbao said. “I would say this is a restoration of the rights of Americans.”

• Carmen Gentile contributed to this article from Miami.

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