Bills to lift Cuba travel ban gaining momentum in Congress

By Juan O. Tamayo
El Nuevo Herald
Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A powerful campaign to allow all Americans to travel to Cuba is rumbling through Congress, with both backers and opponents predicting eventual victory and a Cuban-American Senator holding a key vote.

Approval of the measures would have a profound impact on U.S.-Cuba relations, unleashing an estimated one million American tourists to visit the island and undermining White House control of policy toward Havana.

“There would be an explosion of contacts between Americans and Cubans . . . that would almost overshadow what the two governments are doing,” said Phil Peters, a Cuba expert with the Lexington Institute think thank in suburban Washington.

Proponents say the measures still have not received active support from the White House and the Democratic leadership in both chambers.

Cuban officials have told recent U.S. visitors that while President Barack Obama’s policy changes so far have been too timid to require a Havana reply, ending the U.S. travel ban would be significant enough to require some sort of Havana concession.

Even opponents of the free-travel bills in the House and Senate admit the campaign for approval is powerful. “I have never seen a stronger effort,” said Mauricio Claver-Carone of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy political action committee.

Backing the change has been the U.S. travel industry — Orbitz says it has 100,000 signatures on a petition — and dozens of newspaper editorials, large agricultural companies, former Secretary of State George Shultz, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and groups that traditionally oppose U.S. sanctions on the island.

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