WASHINGTON – A powerful campaign to allow all Americans to travel to Cuba is rumbling through Congress, with both backers and opponents predicting eventual victory and a Cuban-American Senator holding a key vote.
Approval of the measures would have a profound impact on U.S.-Cuba relations, unleashing an estimated one million American tourists to visit the island and undermining White House control of policy toward Havana.
“There would be an explosion of contacts between Americans and Cubans . . . that would almost overshadow what the two governments are doing,” said Phil Peters, a Cuba expert with the Lexington Institute think tank in suburban Washington.
Proponents say the measures still have not received active support from the White House and the Democratic leadership in both chambers.
Cuban officials have told recent U.S. visitors that while President Barack Obama’s policy changes so far have been too timid to require a Havana reply, ending the U.S. travel ban would be significant enough to require some sort of Havana concession.
Even opponents of the free-travel bills in the House and Senate admit the campaign for approval is powerful. “I have never seen a stronger effort,” said Mauricio Claver-Carone of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy political action committee.
Backing the change has been the U.S. travel industry — Orbitz says it has 100,000 signatures on a petition — and dozens of newspaper editorials, large agricultural companies, former Secretary of State George Shultz, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and groups that traditionally oppose U.S. sanctions on the island.
“Our goals should be to get rid of the travel ban in the next six months,” Richardson said Friday during a speech to the National Democratic Network in Washington. “This is a step in the right direction,” Shultz declared last month.
Polls show 60-70 percent of all Americans favor lifting the travel restrictions, and one House bill championed by Massachusetts Democrat Bill Delahunt has gathered 180 sponsors — 38 short of the 218 votes required for passage.
Obama ended all restrictions on Cuban-Americans’ travel to the island on Sept. 3. But other U.S. citizens and residents can travel only under special permits for groups such as churches, academics and business — not for tourism. That was allowed, however, from 1977 to 1982 under former President Jimmy Carter’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba.
Most of the public attention has been focused on the House bill backed by Delahunt and Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif. Farr, noting that U.S agricultural sales to Cuba are allowed but not tourism, has repeated several variations of the line that “We can send American potatoes to Cuba, but not American people.”
But a lesser-known version has a better chance of passing because it also eases restrictions on U.S. agricultural and medical sales to Cuba, in hopes of gathering support from those lobbies, said a Senate Republican staffer monitoring the progress of the travel bills.
The main Senate version of the measure — with 25 co-sponsors from both parties at last count — is being championed by Sens. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., Michael Enzi, R-Wyo. and Richard Lugar, R-Ind.
But backers of the changes say the bills have not moved forward through the congressional maze so far because of the lack of active support from the Obama administration and the Democratic leadership in both chambers.
“The Obama people are showing timidity. They are sitting on their hands,” said a Senate aide whose Democratic boss favors lifting all travel restrictions. He asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the issue.
Administration officials say lifting all travel restrictions would be too drastic and perhaps chaotic, and the the president prefers a more measured warming of relations. They stop short of saying whether Obama would sign or veto the bill if passed by Congress.
“At the end of the day this is a leadership issue,” said the Senate Republican aide, who also asked for anonymity. “Do the Democrats have the will to bring this up [for a vote] with all the other issues — healthcare, Afghanistan, etc.”
Most of Washington’s Cuba watchers agree the full Congress is probably going to pass some bills easing Cuba sanctions, most likely one re-defining the requirement that Havana pay “cash in advance” for U.S. food purchases. The change would allow Cuba to pay when the shipments reach Havana, not before they leave U.S. ports as now required.
But the future of the “Free Travel to Cuba” initiatives is far more uncertain, with most of those monitoring the struggle saying that some version will likely pass the House, but all will almost certainly die in the Senate.
Delahunt “has a pretty impressive list of sponsors. That bill looks good in the House,” said a former Bush administration Cuba expert. “Delahunt will pass the House,” added an Obama administration official. Both asked for anonymity so they could speak frankly about the topic.
But most supporters as well as opponents say the travel measures are unlikely to pass the Senate, where the Democrats have a smaller majority and the bills face stiff opposition from Bob Menendez, a powerful Cuban American Democrat from New Jersey and Florida’s Bill Nelson, a Democrat, and George LeMieux, a Republican.
Menendez and Nelson have strongly opposed easing the ban on U.S. tourism. LeMieux, who replaced Sen. Mel Martinez, is expected to also oppose easing the travel restrictions.
“This is a battle of perceptions. The pro-travel groups are claiming they will win, in the hope of creating the sense of movement and victory,” said Claver-Carone. “But in the end, the Senate will be tough, if not impossible.”