U.S. House fight over travel ban centering on Berman, Frank

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Free-travel proponents and opponents are amid a bruising battle in the U.S. House of Representatives, after a House committee on June 30 passed a bill that would lift the nearly 50-year old travel ban against Cuba and ease agricultural sales.

A silent struggle is currently centering on the chairmen of the House finance and foreign relations committees. Proponents of the bill hope that Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Howard Berman (D-Cal.) use the right to waive their jurisdiction, and let the trade and travel bill go to the floor without action by their committees.

“The issues are clearly drawn, and Berman and Frank may feel the bill should be openly debated by the whole membership rather than fought over out of the spotlight by special interests,” said John McAuliff, a travel-ban lifting activist with the New York-based Fund for Reconciliation and Development.

If Berman and Fank yield, the bill could come up for debate and a vote on the House floor as early as between July 12 and Aug. 8.

Steered the bill through his committee: Collin Peterson (D-Mn.)

 

Led by Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Mn.),  the House Agriculture Committee voted 25-20 to mark up the bill.

Backers said June 28 they were still 13 votes short in the House. However, they expected it to pass with a filibuster-proof 12-vote majority in the Senate. Even so, the companion bill in the Senate will face a filibuster attempt by Sen. Bob Menéndez (D-N.J.), according to The Hill.

This is the farthest a substantial embargo-easing bill has ever made it in Congress. The House bill, H.R. 4645, would lift the travel ban to Cuba altogether and allow Cuba to pay U.S. suppliers directly via U.S. banks. 

“Bottom line, this is our best and probably last opportunity to achieve the end of all travel restrictions,” McAuliff said. “The House and Senate make-up after the mid-term elections are unlikely to be as supportive, so we cannot miss this opportunity.”

If Washington were to lift its nearly five decades-old travel ban, the number of tourists to Cuba could double within a short time period, providing a big boost to the island’s cash-strapped economy. The primary beneficiaries would be Cuban state companies and their foreign partners.

However, a March 2010 study by Texas A& M University suggests that loosening export and travel restrictions to Cuba could spark $365 million in sales of U.S. goods and create 6,000 new jobs in the United States, leading to a $1.1 billion economic impact. Meanwhile, a dozen U.S. cities are jockeying for position, eagerly awaiting an executive decision at the White House to expand the number of airports permitted to offer licensed Cuba flights.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as well as travel and agriculture organizations have strongly backed this bill. In an unusual move first reported by The Hill, the U.S. Chamber in a letter to House Agriculture Committee members warned Tuesday it could score House floor votes on the bill. Such letters typically aren’t sent until a day before a floor vote, and this is the first Cuba-related one sent out by the Chamber. 

“It sends a signal how seriously we are taking the bill,” Patrick Kilbride, the Chamber’s director of the Americas office, told The Hill. “This just has been considered by the Chamber as fundamental to its advocacy message of free enterprise.”

Both backers and opponents of the bill are going to great lengths to influence Congress. Two weeks ago, the free-travel side scored a major coup when the Miami-based Cuba Study Group, led by insurance tycoon Carlos Saladrigas, produced a letter signed by 74 Cuban dissidents, urging Congress to lift the ban. Signers included high-profile names such as blogger Yoani Sánchez and hunger striker Guillermo Fariñas. In a swift response, the pro-embargo caucus around Miami Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart a few days later produced signatures from some 500 dissidents in Cuba on a letter urging Congress to maintain U.S. sanctions.

Next, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the main protagonist of ongoing talks between the Cuban state and Church, was in Washington for a week before the committee vote and quietly met, among others, with the assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Arturo Valenzuela, as well as with House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman, according to Progreso Weekly and Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady.

O’Grady blasted the idea of lifting the travel ban in her Wall Street Journal column, arguing the Cuban government is in “desperate need of new revenue sources” while facing “civil unrest.”

However, ongoing Church-state talks in Cuba, and a gradual easing of government crackdown on dissident demonstrators and treatment of prisoners is giving momentum to the free-travel advocates.

Agriculture committee Chairman Collin Peterson, the Minnesota Democrat who sponsored the bill, said in a letter on the committee’s Website, that the signatures from 74 dissidents should convince House members to support the bill.

“When the strongest pro-democracy activists in Cuba say that the current travel and agriculture trade restrictions only support the Castro regime, you have to ask yourself why we would keep these restrictions in place,” Peterson said. 

By uniting the travel ban and agricultural sales issues in one bill, the votes of Congresspeople responding to agricultural and travel interests were forged into one bloc. Also, the House agricultural committee is considered friendlier to the issue than the foreign affairs committee.

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