A Step in the Right Direction

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Cuba: A Step in the Right Direction

After years without any positive change in U.S. policy toward Cuba, the House Appropriations Committee recently demonstrated support for alleviating the inhumane restrictions on trade and travel to the island.

On June 25th, the committee passed the Financial Services Appropriations bill with a provision that will ease travel for Cuban Americans who want to travel to the island to visit family. The bill also increases agricultural trade between the United States and Cuba.

The provision was presented by the chairman of the Financial Service subcommittee Congressman Jose Serrano (D-NY), and is a small step in the right direction of ending travel restrictions for all Americans. The specific provisions include:

  • Allowing Cuban Americans to travel to Cuba to visit family once a year rather than once every three years.
  • Expanding the definition of family to include aunts, uncles, first cousins, nieces, and nephews.
  • Tweaking the “cash-in-advance” regulations to allow agricultural goods to leave U.S. ports for Cuba prior to receiving Cuba’s cash payment; title is transferred after the cash is received in the seller’s account.

Typically, the next step after committee approval would be for the bill to move to the House floor for amendments and a final vote. However, because this is an election year, it is difficult to determine whether the legislation will even make it this far. Democrats in Congress are likely to hold up current appropriations bills in favor of re-writing them in early 2009 under a new (and potentially Democratic) administration. However, if the bill does come to the House floor, we have to be ready to defend the Cuba provisions. Losing this vote would send the wrong message to a new administration about the level of support in Congress for changing this failed policy.

The Senate has also taken significant steps toward abandoning the inhumane restrictions on trade and travel to Cuba. On July 9, the Senate Financial Services and General Government Appropriations subcommittee unanimously approved a spending bill that included Cuba related provisions similar to those introduced by Mr. Serrano in the House. The provisions included in the Senate bill would restore the rights of Cuban Americans to the level they were at before 2004, when President Bush’s “Commission for Assistance for a Free Cuba” tightened restrictions. This means that Cuban Americans could now be able travel to the island once a year rather than once every three years and that the 14-day travel limit would be lifted. The bill also includes a provision to increase the spending limit for Americans traveling to Cuba from $50 to $170.

In both the House and the Senate, opponents of Cuban-American family travel have said they are going to challenge the Cuba provisions. Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) and Congressman Boyd (D-FL) both expressed their opposition to the Cuba language in the bill during the full House Appropriations committee meeting. Senator Brownback (R-KS) also expressed opposition to the Cuba provisions in a recent Congressional Quarterly article, announcing that he “may provide a different option” at the full Senate committee markup.

Ultimately, if this bill moves to the floor in either chamber, the hard-liners in Congress will continue to mischaracterize any provisions that support family travel as condoning the Castro regime. It will be essential for activists to remain vigilant in order to ensure that this legislation is seen for what it can truly be, a first step toward the full restoration of rights for all Americans and their families to travel to Cuba.