Cuba travel bill buried in political agenda
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bipartisan drive in Congress to end a Cold War-era travel ban on Cuba was buried during the healthcare reform debate but its supporters hope to dig it out this year.
Sponsors of two bills allowing Americans to travel freely to Cuba, introduced last year in the Senate and the House of Representatives, say a flood of dollars from the pro-embargo Cuban-American lobby might also have played a part.
"Support has not waned but it's clear that the debate over healthcare has consumed the first year of the (Obama) administration and has had a similar impact in terms of congressional action," Representative Bill Delahunt, a Democrat and one of the authors of the bill, told Reuters.
Co-sponsor Jeff Flake, a Republican representative, said the votes were there to pass the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act this year but the Democratic majority in the House was divided over whether to take it to the floor for a vote.
"This is not an issue that is at the top of their agenda or anywhere close and it's also an issue that splits part of their caucus," he said. "I still think it could happen this year."
The bill has 178 backers in the House, 40 votes short of the 218 needed but still a "big number," Flake said.
If passed, the act would be a bold step toward ending the 48-year U.S. trade embargo against Cuba and likely would flood the communist-run Caribbean island with American tourists attracted by its beaches and revolutionary mystique.
The U.S. National Tour Association estimates at least 850,000 Americans would fly to Cuba, just 90 miles off the Florida coast, in the first year after sanctions were lifted. U.S. and Cuban tour operators will meet next month in the Mexican resort of Cancun to draw up plans for that day.
The Cuba travel bills were introduced last year as President Barack Obama promised to "recast" troubled relations with Cuba. But the expectations raised when Obama lifted travel restrictions for Cuba-Americans are now all but gone.
The explanation may lay, in part, in a strategy change by Cuban-Americans opposed to the Castro leadership. In the last few years, they have given Democratic lawmakers generous donations in the hopes of preventing any relaxation of the U.S. trade embargo.
Public Campaign, a non-partisan group, estimated hardline Cuban-Americans gave more than $10 million in contributions to politicians since 2004.
Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the pro-embargo U.S.-Cuba Democracy Public Action Committee, sees a clear link between those money flows and the apparent stall of the bills.
"There is undoubtedly a connection," he told Reuters. "One of our goals was to break the political barrier and make Cuba policy a bipartisan issue."
U.S. tourism would be a life-line for the cash-strapped Cuban government, he said, allowing it to almost double the island's gross domestic product in the first year.
Divisions among Democrats emerged in November when 53 representatives signed a letter against any changes in the U.S. Cuba policy based on human rights concerns.
Public Campaign said 51 of the 53 had received a total of more than $850,000 in contributions from the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Public Action Committee and other pro-embargo donors.
"The letter, I think, was a strong indication the votes are not there," Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat from Florida who gathered the signatures, told Reuters.
"I have about 20 more Democrats who didn't sign the letter but would not vote to lift the travel ban. That, combined with the overwhelming majority of Republicans, indicates the votes are just not there."
Supporters of the bill acknowledge the Public Action Committee has been effective.
"They've always had money and, in Washington, money talks," said Delahunt.
Supporters of the bill play down the impact of recent rifts between Washington and Havana, notably Cuba's detention last December of a U.S. contractor accused of distributing illegal satellite communications gear.
Cuban President Raul Castro, who took over from his ailing older brother Fidel in 2008, said the contractor incident showed Obama was committed to destroying the island's socialist system, just as his 10 predecessors were.
The renewed tension was reflected in The Washington Post's editorial page, where a recent piece said the travel bill should be frozen until Cuba frees the detained contractor.
But supporters called it "background noise" and said the act was not so much about rewarding the Cuban government as guaranteeing the right of Americans to travel.
Senator Byron Dorgan, a Democrat whose bill has 38 co-sponsors, said the current policy only punishes Americans.
"This describes the goofy position we put ourselves in by inhibiting the right of the American people to travel," Dorgan said. "Do you think there will be a ghost of a chance of saying we are going to now restrict the right of the American people to travel to China? You will be run out of town."
(Editing by John O'Callaghan)