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Cuba: House Action or Status Quo?

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At the beginning of the year, as we began the second round of the 111th Congress, our campaign to lift the ban on U.S. citizens' travel to Cuba had come to a crossroads. In 2009, the "Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act," H.R. 874, introduced in the House of Representatives by travel champions Bill Delahunt (D-MA) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ), won strong backing, i.e. co-sponsorship, from an astonishing 180 representatives. Nevertheless, we weren't raising any celebratory mojitos. While the U.S. public was and is increasingly coming around to our viewpoint, we were still 30 or so votes short from being able to pass the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act in the House. With no new co-sponsors in sight, it was time to consider alternative paths to a resounding "Travel for ALL!" victory.

Thankfully, the House's travel champions wasted no time in adjusting the legislative sails. On February 23rd, Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) and Rep. Jerry Moran (R-KS) unveiled H.R. 4645, the "Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act," a hybrid bill that would, in language identical to the Delahunt-Flake act, unequivocally restore U.S. citizens' travel to Cuba while substantially strengthening U.S. agriculture’s ability to sell their products to Cuba and put food on Cuban tables, by lowering the financial and transactional hoops Cuba must jump through to purchase U.S. agricultural goods. Since it's our best chance to do away with the travel ban in 2010 and because Cuba had originally been crystal clear about its preference for purchasing food stuffs from a market only 90 miles away, we did not see the inclusion of ag sales provisions as a deal-breaker for our side. We were also encouraged and motivated by research from Texas A&M University indicating that, in addition to correcting an injustice against U.S. citizens and helping Cubans meet their dietary needs, H.R. 4645 would likely create thousands of jobs in states hardest hit by unemployment.

So what's happened in the days and weeks since H.R. 4645 was introduced?

In early March, the Agriculture Committee held a hearing featuring testimony from the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union, and commodity groups such as USA Rice. While there wasn't, as we would have preferred, a hearing witness who could persuasively argue in favor of lifting travel restrictions on U.S. citizens, several committee members picked up the "Travel for ALL!" torch and ran with it. Frustrated by comments by Reps. Debbie Halvorson (D-IL) and Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-MO) that trivialized travel as mere tourism, questioned the integrity of U.S. travelers, and openly raised the possibility of stripping travel from the legislation, Rep. Moran (R-KS) made an impassioned defense of freedom to travel as, above all, a fundamental right in dire need of restoration: "…it [lifting the travel ban] is about liberty for American citizens." Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-IA) didn't try to match the eloquence of Rep. Moran, but he did match the passion with his colorful “Dammit, it’s time to do this!” remarks (Woo, you tell 'em, Congressman!). While reviews of the Agriculture Committee hearing were mixed, it motivated Chairman Peterson to push hard with his undecided colleagues and champion the bill to the press.

The Ag Committee hearing was also successful in re-igniting interest in the travel issue in the broader House. In late April, not wanting to miss out on the fun of holding a congressional hearing, John Tanner (D-TN), chairman of the Trade Subcommittee of Ways and Means, convened his colleagues to hear about U.S. policy towards Cuba from a rock-star panel that included John Block, Reagan's first term Secretary of Agriculture, and Wayne Smith, former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and longtime advocate of open travel and greater engagement with the island. Mr. Block recalled his advising President-elect Reagan, in the administration's first cabinet meeting, to end the embargo on U.S. grain sales to the Soviet Union as it would "…communicate to the Russian people that the United States of America was their friend, and was committed to their nourishment…" In his remarks, Wayne Smith highlighted the shear foolishness of maintaining the policy status quo: "One does not, after all, encourage movement toward a more open society in any given country by barring one's own citizens from traveling there." If only members of Congress were guided by such common sense we could perhaps leap off this tired policy merry go-round or at least change its music.

As of this writing, a mark-up on H.R. 4645 in the Ag Committee is imminent IF Chairman Peterson is able to pick up a final vote or two. If this happens, we need you to be ready to act to help us get the bill passed on the House floor. However, if we're ultimately unsuccessful in Congress–and we must say that the challenges we're facing are, as always, quite formidable–we'll shift our attention back to the Obama Administration. Perhaps the strong support for lifting the travel ban in Congress can give the administration the political cover it needs to return to the same licensed categories–which allowed for religious, academic, and other kinds of valuable people-to-people exchange–as were in place under President Clinton. This clearly isn’t the Full Monty that we support, but we have to start re-opening opportunities for Cubans and U.S. citizens to dialogue, learn, and grow together. Over time, perhaps they can show two governments that there's more to gain from dialogue and respect than from isolation.