111th Congress and Travel

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For many months—almost two years actually—we’ve focused on congressional action that would definitively end the ban on travel to Cuba; we felt that we had a real opportunity in the 111th Congress to radically alter the stale debate that had developed in Washington DC during the Bush Administration. We succeeded in changing the debate, but so far the policy has not changed. 

HR 874, the beginning of the end…to the travel ban

We, along with many of you around the country, worked tirelessly on different incarnations of legislation that would restore the right of U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba. Our collective efforts have brought us a long way in the last two years. HR 874, a bill introduced by Congressmen Delahunt (D-MA) and Flake (R-AZ) in February of 2009 collected 179 cosponsors, a number rarely seen with any legislation, but still shy of guaranteeing a win on the House Floor. Accompanying HR 874 was twin legislation in the Senate, S 428 introduced by Senators Dorgan (D-ND) and Enzi (R-WI). This first phase of our work was incredibly energizing and largely a grassroots effort. This work in which all of you participated overcame the inactivity that plagued the Congress on Cuba issues in the past four congressional sessions. You got the ball rolling again in Congress.

HR 4645, phase two—Travel “plus” and the growth of a coalition

Because momentum grew, our allies in Congress decided to push for more than just travel. The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Congressman Peterson (D-MN), along with Congressman Moran (R-KS), introduced a new bill, HR 4645, which ended the travel ban, but also facilitated the sale of agricultural goods to Cuba. We applauded this addition since these agricultural fixes would put food on the table of Cubans and lend a hand to farmers in the United States. The Senate followed suit with, Senator Klobuchar (D-MN) introducing an identical bill,  S 3112.

 Chairman Peterson’s bill brought with it the support of the agriculture grassroots—farmers farmers, as well as state farm bureaus, commodity groups, etc.—that  joined the team, amplifying the call for a change in policy. Groups that were already asking Congress to restore our right to travel redoubled their efforts. Letters from the American Farm Bureau Federation and the Chamber of Commerce accompanied letters from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in support of HR 4645. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Council of Churches, dissidents in Cuba also sent letters in support. This expanded coalition made the travel ban on Cuba an issue that the national media had to notice. Editorials and op-eds from around the country—New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and many more—appeared about Cuba and the travel ban.

With overwhelming congressional support and with the media starting to pay attention , things were looking promising. In June 2010 the House Agriculture Committee passed HR 4645—a huge feat. However, the final step to get HR 4645 to the House floor for a vote—passage in the House Foreign Affairs Committee—did not occur. Chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) ran out of time before the end of the congressional session. The results of the November 2010 elections did not help, either. So we close out the year without a legislative victory that would have ended the ban on travel to Cuba. While the 111th congressional session did not yield a change in policy, this is not the time to give up. We may have to defend against nasty moves to tighten and retrench (coming out of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, which Cuban-American Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen will now chair in the new Congress). You’ve probably read some of the analyses (here and here) about what this will mean. It will be important to re-invent the campaign to “End the Travel Ban on Cuba,” continue the momentum gained in support of HR 4645, and successfully navigate within the new political reality.

Next steps and call to action

The Obama Administration cannot end the travel ban; Congress must act. But the administration can open things up through revising travel regulations. The LAWG and our supporters have always advocated for exchange between U.S. citizens and the Cuban people through the arts and culture, academic and student travel, religious/humanitarian groups, sports, and other people-to-people exchanges. At this moment, we call on everyone across the United States who supports increasing people-to-people contact between Cuba and the United States to join this advocacy campaign directed at the White House! Through our petition on Change.org, we are asking President Obama to exercise his full executive authority to increase opportunities for travel, learning, and conversation between our two peoples. Each signature on the petition also generates an email to the White House. Click here to urge the President to act. There is no time to delay . . . the new Congress will only make his decision harder. It is time for the President to grant general licenses for all non-tourist travel to Cuba NOW.