More than 50 senators support eliminating restrictions on travel to Cuba

American Airlines flight lands in Cienfuegos, Cuba

After 55 years, American Airlines begins scheduled commercial service between Miami and Cuban cities of Cienfuegos and Holguín.
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After 55 years, American Airlines begins scheduled commercial service between Miami and Cuban cities of Cienfuegos and Holguín.

As the Cuba policy review reaches its final stage, politicians, companies and organizations that support the policy of engagement are making an extra effort to send this message to Donald Trump: Mr. President, don’t eliminate opportunities to travel to the island.

Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) reintroduced a bill Thursday to eliminate all prohibitions on travel to Cuba. The bill, which had only eight cosponsors when first filed in 2015, now has the support of 55 senators from both parties.

“As the administration is finalizing its Cuba policy review, it is important to show that a bipartisan majority in the Senate supports not only not rolling back the measures that President Obama took to expand travel, but to go even further and remove all restrictions,” James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, told el Nuevo Herald. Engage Cuba is a coalition of companies and organizations that lobby to eliminate sanctions on Cuba.

The bill would remove all restrictions for U.S. citizens and residents on travel to Cuba, and will authorize associated banking transactions made by travelers. A similar proposal was presented in the House but with fewer sponsors.

Even if the bill is not discussed on the Senate floor, said Williams, it sends a strong message to the White House that there is support for the current policy of engagement.

In a separate move to push the agenda forward, another piece of legislation was introduced on Friday to lift the trade embargo. The Freedom to Export to Cuba Act of 2017 was introduced by Sens. Leahy, Flake, Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming).

“This bipartisan legislation would benefit the people of both our countries by boosting American exports and creating opportunity for the Cuban people,” said Klobuchar. “We need to turn the page on the failed policy of isolation and build on the progress we have made to open up engagement with Cuba by ending the embargo once and for all.”

On travel to the island, former President Barack Obama expanded to 12 the number of authorized categories under which travelers may visit Cuba. But the removal of all travel restrictions requires an act of Congress.

As a result of Obama’s measures, the number of Americans who traveled to the island soared. Cuban authorities reported 118-percent growth through March, compared to the same period last year. In 2016, more than 280,000 Americans traveled to the island.

But those who support the current policies fear that travel to Cuba may be in jeopardy. Although the review of the Cuba policy is being carried out by different federal agencies and coordinated by the National Security Council, Cuban-American lawmakers Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart — who favor the elimination of what they see as concessions to the Cuban government — are playing a significant role in the process.

“Recognizing the inherent right of Americans to travel to Cuba isn’t a concession to dictators, it is an expression of freedom. It is Americans who are penalized by our travel ban, not the Cuban government,” said Flake.

“Lifting the ban on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba can pave the way to meaningful change by increasing contact between Cubans and everyday Americans, and it is certain to have positive benefits for the island’s burgeoning entrepreneurial and private sector,” he added.

Recognizing the inherent right of Americans to travel to Cuba isn’t a concession to dictators, it is an expression of freedom.

Jeff Flake (R-AZ)

In a statement in support of the bill, the Cuban Study Group, a Cuban-American nonprofit organization that backed Obama’s changes, stressed that the elimination of the restrictions would have a “substantial” effect on the lives of Cubans, especially those who have joined the private sector.

“Instead of being forced to use the government as an intermediary, hundreds of thousands of Cubans who work in independent restaurants, bed and breakfasts, and a wide range of other service professions would have direct access to U.S. currency,” the organization said.

Some 40 companies and associations organizing trips to Cuba also sent a letter to Trump asking him to prioritize economic “growth and job creation” in the policy review.

The letter signers, including former charter flight companies as well as the American Society of Travel Agents, the National Tour Association and the United States Tour Operators Association, say the increase in U.S. visitors to Cuba has allowed them to “hire more American employees,” in a nod to Trump's America First theme.

“U.S. travelers are the best representatives of American beliefs, ideas and values,” said Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, who coordinated the letter. “The Trump administration should put U.S. companies and travelers in a position to compete with Chinese, Russian and Venezuelan influence on the island.”

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres