A bipartisan group of U.S. senators believes that permitting U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba freely will break down economic and trade barriers between the two estranged countries.
“Increased travel to the island nation will further the cause of democracy, advance human rights and be beneficial for U.S. agriculture and business groups,” Senator Byron Dorgan said March 31. Dorgan is a Democrat representing North Dakota.
The measure to ease the travel ban – entitled the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act – is being co-sponsored by senators Michael Enzi, a Wyoming Republican, Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, and Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican.
“Our policy with Cuba punishes Americans by prohibiting their right to travel. Further, this policy has done nothing to weaken the Castro regime,” Dorgan said. “It’s long past time to change this ill-advised policy.”
Enzi said the United States has restricted travel to Cuba and severely limited business with the island for more than 50 years and it has not worked. This legislation is designed to end that practice and open Cuba to democracy, he said.
An identical bill has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives with 120 co-sponsors. Both bills have to work their way through congressional committees and be voted on by each chamber of Congress before legislation can be sent to the president and become law. The legislative process could take two years to complete, depending on the level of opposition and amendments added before a final vote is taken.
The bill provides for exceptions in cases of war, threats to public health and the safety of U.S. travelers.
President Obama said during his campaign in 2008 that he favored lifting U.S. restrictions so families could travel to Cuba and send money to family members.
Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and the son of Cuban immigrants, opposes the legislation, saying now is the time to support pro-democracy activists in Cuba and not provide an economic boom to the Castro regime.
Cuba is the only nation to which the United States bans travel, though there are some exceptions to the ban such as for journalists and humanitarian visits.
The pending legislation is widely supported by the farming industry and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Trade and industry groups are hopeful that if travel restrictions are lifted, the trade embargo can also be lifted.
According to the American Farm Bureau, sales to Cuba total $400 million worth of rice, wheat, poultry and other agricultural goods annually, but could reach $1 billion a year with fewer restrictions.
The United States imposed an arms embargo on Cuba after the regime of Fidel Castro came to power following the fall of the Fulgencio Batista government in 1959. In 1962, the United States expanded the embargo to include other items after the Cuban government under Fidel Castro seized the properties of U.S. companies that had business interests on the island nation. The U.S. Congress codified the restrictions into law in 1992.