Travel to Cuba Legislation Mired by Scandal, Fierce Opposition

In 1963, following heightened tensions in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy imposed the first travel restrictions on American citizens desiring to travel to Cuba. After years of gridlock regarding the subject courtesy of Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and her ideological kinsman from the ultra-conservative Cuban American National Foundation, a growing number of U.S. members of Congress have consistently introduced legislation in an attempt to remove long-held constraints on U.S. citizens’ freedom to travel. Although former Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), among others, nearly managed to muster sufficient forces in Congress to remove the restrictions, these reforms have failed to attract a sufficient number of votes to lift the ban.

In a November 2009 hearing, the Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Howard Berman (D-CA), raised important issues regarding the logic behind the travel ban in his opening statement. During the hearing, entitled “Is it Time to Lift the Ban on Travel to Cuba?,” Berman explained, “Americans have the right to travel to Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism…We can go to North Korea, which threatens to destabilize East Asia with its nuclear weapons program. And even during the darkest days of the Cold War, our citizens could visit the Soviet Union.” Berman argued that the U.S.’s current approach toward Cuba has had the effect of undermining ordinary Cubans’ prospects for attaining political and social freedoms. He emphasized that Washington’s policy, which is centered on inhibiting the Castro regime, should be guided by a more constructive compass that helps rather than consciously hurts the Cuban population.

Although support for the normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations has steadily mounted on Capitol Hill, a number of setbacks have limited the goals of Representative Berman and other progressive legislators. Such incidents include the December 2009 detainment and subsequent imprisonment of Alan Gross, an American contractor working in Cuba, and the death by hunger strike of political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo in February. These episodes have sparked new rifts in the relationship between Washington and Havana. Deep political divisions and a scandal involving Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY), who has sponsored bills that encourage improved bilateral relations, further complicate already frustrated attempts to reinstate American travel rights to Cuba. In addition to these foothills, the Obama administration was not prepared to use its political capital to scale the peaks of a regional foreign policy issue which has a limited domestic constituency and is fiercely opposed by a relatively small core of zealots, whose detestation of the Castro brothers cannot be exaggerated.

Previous Legislation

In the previous congressional session, Representative Rangel and Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY) introduced bills in their respective chambers proposing to end the travel ban. However, neither lawmaker succeeded in passing their bills, which would have appreciably altered the status quo.

House of Representatives

On January 24, 2007, Representative Rangel introduced bill H.R. 654, entitled the “Export Freedom to Cuba Act of 2007.” The measure urged the President to rescind all travel limitations to Cuba upon its enactment, stating that “the President shall not regulate or prohibit, directly or indirectly, travel to or from Cuba by United States citizens or legal residents, or any transactions incident to such travel.” The legislation also outlined three cases in which the new policy would not apply: in the event of war between Cuba and the United States, the escalation of armed hostilities between the two nations, or the rise of danger to the health or safety of traveling Americans. The “Export Freedom to Cuba Act” was supported by 120 co-sponsors and received substantial bipartisan support. However, it lacked the signatures of an additional 98 co-sponsors necessary to reach the grand total of 218 votes required for it to pass. Another complicating factor was posed by Congressman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) decision to withdraw his name as a co-sponsor of the bill, a move that sheds light on the extreme sensitivity of the issue.

After H.R. 654 failed to pass, a fast-moving scandal further impeded progress on lifting Cuban travel restrictions. Last March, Representative Rangel, a major House proponent of improving U.S.-Cuban relations, was investigated by the House Ethics Committee and stepped down as Chairman of the influential Ways and Means Committee, while the inquiry was taking place. The New York Times reported that Rangel explained that he “sent a letter to Speaker Pelosi asking her to grant [him]…a leave of absence until the ethics committee complete[d] its work.” According to the article, the committee has accused Rangel of violating Congressional regulations on the bestowal of gifts because he accepted corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean in 2007 and 2008. Representative Rangel also may face additional charges from the committee concerning fundraising and federal tax evasion. This expanding scandal has seriously tarnished Representative Rangel’s image and compromised his work as a powerful legislator; it has also hindered his ability to effectively introduce and push bills through the House. Furthermore, outside groups, as well as other members of Congress who oppose travel to Cuba, have used the scandal as ammunition to fight Rangel’s attempts to introduce Cuba-related legislation.

Senate

On March 1, 2007, Senator Enzi introduced bill S. 721 entitled the “Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2007,” a measure identical to Representative Rangel’s previously proposed legislation. The co-sponsors of the bill consisted of 19 Democrats—including the party’s second-highest ranking Senator, Richard Durbin (D-IL)—4 Republicans, and an Independent. Despite receiving bipartisan support, the legislation failed to attract the 51 votes required to pass in the Senate.

Current Legislation

House of Representatives

On February 4, 2009, Representative Bill Delahunt (D-MA) introduced H.R. 874, the “Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act,” which, similar to its 2007 counterpart, stipulated that the President would be forbidden to restrict American citizens and legal residents from traveling to and from Cuba. Like previous pieces of legislation introduced in Congress, this Act would be revoked in times of war or armed hostilities between the two countries, or if imminent danger threatened the health or safety of U.S. travelers. Currently, 178 representatives from both parties are co-sponsoring the bill.

Senate

On February 12, 2009, Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) introduced S. 428, entitled the “Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act.” This bill closely mirrors H.R. 874, and it currently has 38 co-sponsors. The ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar (R-IN), has urged his colleagues to support the measure. According to the prominent legislator, the bill would inherently increase contact between Cubans and Americans, who would act as “ambassadors for the democratic values we hold dear.” Overall, there are very few differences between the pieces of legislation introduced during this and past congressional terms with respect to American travel to Cuba. Lawmakers have repeatedly focused on eliminating the President’s ability to prohibit or impede travel to and from Cuba by U.S. citizens or legal residents. They argue that by nurturing an evolving relationship, Washington will stand a greater chance of advancing authentic U.S. national interests in Cuba and establishing normal relations with the nation in the future.

While lawmakers in both the House and the Senate have introduced measures that would improve U.S.-Cuban relations during this legislative session, the issue has not been a major priority for Congress, especially during a time when debates regarding healthcare reform and the overhaul of the financial system have dominated the political arena. For instance, Representative Delahunt told Reuters that “support [for H.R. 874] 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.” Jeff Flake (R-AZ), a sponsor of H.R. 874 and a consistent advocate of advancing ties with Cuba, added that there were sufficient votes to pass the Act but that deep divisions among Democrats had stalled a floor vote. Additionally, Representative Delahunt’s decision to retire (he announced this March that he would not seek re-election) could put the legislation in jeopardy if a vote does not occur before he leaves office. Like Representative Rangel, Delahunt has always promoted development of a constructive relationship with Cuba.

Mounting Opposition Jeopardizes Legislation

Divisions on the issue among House Democrats intensified when, in November of 2009, 53 representatives presented a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi opposing any change to U.S.-Cuba policy. In the letter, the signatories state, “Any legislation that would seek to ease or lift sanctions, in disregard of these conditions in law, would send a devastating message to Cuba’s opposition movement and legitimize an ailing dictatorship.” They argue that removing any restrictions (including the travel ban) on Cuba would give the Castro regime a disincentive to promote democratic practices and social freedoms, actions which the letter’s authors consider prerequisites for altering Washington’s Cuba policy.
Public Campaign, a non-profit and non-partisan organization whose mission is to reduce the role of special interests in U.S. politics, reported that the 2009 letter’s signers had received approximately $850,000 in contributions from the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee (PAC), a staunch opponent of lifting the Cuban travel ban and other restrictions against the island nation. This report calls into question the lawmakers’ true motives for opposing new Cuba legislation, as congressional members are constantly forced to seek funding for their future campaign races. Proponents of changing U.S.-Cuba policy have argued that money from PACs is one of the main factors driving Washington’s stagnant Cuba policy. Indeed, it comes as no surprise that representatives who benefit from these contributions are fierce advocates of pro-embargo strategy.

In the Senate, Robert Menendez (D-NJ), a Cuban-American whose parents emigrated to the U.S., is known for his hard-line approach toward Cuba, even though he votes along liberal lines on many social issues. In contrast to many of his Democratic colleagues, Menendez vehemently opposes working with the Castro government, which he describes as a regime that “has been adept at…instilling fear and terror and perpetuating their own power through a Stalinist police state.” With respect to Cuban travel legislation, Menendez argued in a March 2009 speech on the Senate floor that “allowing Americans to sit on the beaches [of Cuba]…will not bring the Cuban people their liberty.” Although his views are the minority within his own party, Senator Menendez has used his influence as Chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to confront advocates of a new and more responsive U.S.-Cuba policy, such as Senator Dorgan. Menendez’s tough stance on Cuba may, to an extent, be shaped by his parents’ heritage; however, Public Campaign reported that he too has received an impressive sum of funds from the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC ($165,800 in total). Knowing that Senator Menendez is one of the top five recipients in donations from the group perhaps gives some insight as to why he supports nearly every constructive policy toward Latin America, but rejects those regarding Cuba.

What do Americans Say?

Harris Interactive, a market research firm that specializes in public opinion, released a series of polls in March 2010 regarding Americans’ opinions toward U.S.-Cuban policy. When asked their opinion on the statement, “It is too soon for normal relations to be restored with Cuba,” 44% agreed and 38% disagreed either strongly or somewhat. Similarly, when asked to state how they felt about the statement, “The embargo towards Cuba should remain in effect,” 40% said they agreed and 36% said they disagreed. These statistics show that the American public is as divided as are many members of Congress regarding the topic, something which is reflected in various pending pieces of legislation. However, only 28% of Americans aged 18-34 believe that the embargo should remain in effect versus 49% of Americans older than 55, who think so. These younger voters’ views should signal to congressmen that Americans’ opinions are changing and that supporting legislation that would ease restrictions on Cuba might reflect the best interests of their constituents.

New Obstacles

Although the Harris Interactive study shows that many Americans tend to support normalizing relations with Cuba, new scandals have impeded the enactment of constructive policies. The December 2009 arrest of Alan Gross, an American contractor and alleged spy, has caused tensions to flare between officials in Washington and Havana in recent months. Gross, who remains imprisoned in Havana, was in Cuba carrying out a USAID-funded project aimed at improving communication networks between Cuban Jews and other Jewish communities. Gross’s detainment has greatly troubled lawmakers in Congress. Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), who represents Gross’s home state, was prompted to draft a letter on March 23 to Jorge Bolaños, the Chief of Mission at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, pleading for Gross’s release. In the letter, Representative Van Hollen expresses deep concern that Gross’s imprisonment could dramatically affect U.S.-Cuban relations, stating:

The arrest and imprisonment of Mr. Gross is viewed with great consternation by the government of the United States, including both Democrat and Republican Members of the United States Congress…It has caused many to doubt your government’s expressed desire to improve relations with the United States. We cannot assist in that regard while Mr. Gross is detained in a Cuban prison.

BBC News reported that Cuban President Raúl Castro had similarly harsh words for the U.S. government after Gross’s detainment, declaring that “the enemy is as active as ever,” and that Gross was doling out “sophisticated methods of communication to members of the civil society which they hope to form against our people.” Indeed, it appears that until Gross is returned to the United States, Washington will freeze policy implementation and the two closest of “enemies” will continue to engage in a war of words.

The current human rights situation in Cuba has also made matters worse for proponents of S. 428 and H.R. 874 who are looking to drum up support for the bills. On February 23, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a political prisoner who had been conducting a hunger strike for 83 days to protest unacceptable prison conditions, died of starvation in a Havana hospital. Zapata’s death not only set off a series of protests and additional hunger strikes conducted by human rights activists in Cuba, but it also prompted lawmakers in Washington to slam the Cuban regime and warn of the potentially disastrous consequences that lifting the travel ban could have on the Cuban people. In a March 23 Special Order Session on Cuba, Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) argued that those supporters “believe that somehow if you coddle dictatorship, you will see an amelioration of their egregious acts. It doesn’t happen… over this last half century, it has not happened in Cuba….The more you enable a dictatorship, the more of an appetite it has for political prisoners, for repression…” Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-FL) discussed the regime’s oppressive approach toward human rights, adding “…if [Castro] gets mass tourism, then imagine the ability to further repress, to further torture, to further denigrate, discriminate, because the essence of that regime is not only totalitarian regime; it is a racist regime against the Cuban people.” Lawmakers like Smith and Diaz-Balart who oppose easing restrictions on Cuba have staunchly supported the embargo in the wake of Zapata’s tragic death, insisting that the regime must improve its human rights record before it receives any carrots from the U.S. government. Opponents of the embargo, however, maintain that this flawed approach will merely perpetuate the unnecessary punishment of Cuban citizens, and that Washington’s policy towards Cuba is obsolete because it is not emulated anywhere else in the world.

Conclusion

While the issue of American travel to Cuba is clearly divisive—both camps adamantly claim that their policy will persuade the Cuban government to promote freedom for its people—efforts to include S. 428 and H.R. 874 on the political agenda unfortunately have been compromised by what the administration has seen as the emergence of more urgent problems (namely healthcare reform and the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis) in Congress. Although the Obama administration took minor steps to ease travel constraints on Cuba in April 2009 by removing restrictions on family visits by Cuban-Americans to the nation and by lifting barriers on remittances being sent to Cuba, very little has been done since then to expand upon those initial smart moves. Nonetheless, debate on the subject is bound to resurface again until substantial changes are made, as the American public has begun to grow tired of Washington’s outdated policy and the Cuban people continue to suffer.

If the United States truly wishes to improve its relationship with the Cuban government and to strengthen ties with other leaders across Latin America, it must part ways with its archaic policies by engaging the island nation and taking a more responsible approach toward promoting freedom across Cuba. Congressman James McGovern (D-MA), a co-sponsor of H.R. 874, effectively summarized his colleagues’ goals for building a constructive relationship with Cuba during a February statement on the floor. He stated that “if we are truly going to do a better job of standing with the Cuban people, then we need to be closer to them and in greater numbers. We need to travel freely to the island to meet and to learn from them and they from us.” Many Americans share Representative McGovern’s sentiments and see free travel to Cuba as a way to jumpstart talks between the two nations. Unfortunately, it appears that efforts to implement this straightforward policy remain bogged down by an influential group of opponents and a series of setbacks that have kept Cuba and the U.S. at odds. Given these regrettable conditions, it is doubtful that new travel laws, which would expose ordinary Cubans to American culture and boost Cuba’s tourism industry and informal economy, will be implemented any time soon.