Provisions to lift Cuba travel and business restrictions inch forward

Two passengers from the Adonia cruise ship pose with Cuban dancers in Havana on May 2, 2016.
Two passengers from the Adonia cruise ship pose with Cuban dancers in Havana on May 2, 2016. AP

Two amendments to eliminate the prohibitions on travel to Cuba and allow the extension of private credits to companies on the island for the purchase of U.S. agricultural products were included in the draft budget for financial services and general government spending for 2017 and approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee Thursday.

An amendment by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) to remove restrictions still hanging over U.S. travel to the island and tourism was approved in a voice vote.

"Today, Americans can travel to any country in the world ... except one that is 90 miles away: Cuba," Leahy said in presenting his proposal. The senator argued that the current policy of sanctions "ended up harming the Cuban people" and not allowing Americans to freely travel to that country prevents the free flow of ideas and democratic values.

Another amendment to allow American farmers to extend private financing for the export of agricultural commodities to Cuba was also approved by a majority vote, 22-8. Currently Cubans must pay cash for the purchase of any agricultural or food product imported from the United States.

The amendment, proposed by Senators John Boozman (R-Arkansas) and John Tester (D-Montana), also removes restrictions that prevent ships docking in Cuban ports from loading or unloading freight in the U.S. before six months.

“This is what historic change looks like. The success of these amendments prove there is growing bipartisan support for changing our obsolete policy toward Cuba,” said Steven Law, Engage Cuba senior advisor and former chief of staff to Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). “More and more, members of Congress are realizing how unfair it is to deny Americans the right to freely travel to Cuba and to block American farmers and companies from doing business there.”

James Williams, the president of Engage Cuba, said that the travel ban is incompatible with U.S. values ​​as a free society. He also noted that the increase in travel by Americans to Cuba (more than 94,000 have visited the country in the first three months of this year) is already "fueling” the expansion of the private sector on the island.

“We are very pleased that the Senate Appropriations Committee has passed provisions to allow Americans to travel to Cuba, allow American farmers to offer credit to Cuba, and allow ships to dock in Cuban ports,” Williams said.

“Increased American travel is already fueling the vast expansion of Cuba’s private sector. Not only that, but the federal government shouldn't be in the business of policing Americans' vacation plans,” he said. “The travel ban is inconsistent with our values as a free society and I'm glad the Senate Appropriations Committee made it overwhelmingly clear they want that to change.”

Earlier this month, Engage Cuba announced that the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015, presented by Leahy and Republican Senator Jeff Flake, already had 51 sponsors. However, Williams warned that the strategy would not be to force a vote on the Senate floor but rather to try to include amendments during the process of approving budgets for the various levels of government.

Also approved were provisions to expand exports of devices and telecommunications services to Cuba (presented by Senator Tom Udall) as well as to allow aircraft traveling to or returning from Cuba in the transatlantic route to make stops in the United States for refueling at the airport in Bangor, Maine, (proposed by Sen. Susan Collins).

The refueling provision was approved despite an objection from the Treasury Department, which sent a last-minute message of concern pointing out that the language could be used by airlines or countries not authorized to fly to the United States to land planes on U.S. soil.

The amendments were included during a “markup” session to redraft and approve the budgets for government financial services and the U.S. Department of Interior, which will be taken up by the full Senate. The draft budgets were cataloged as "controversial" because of the inclusion of the Cuba amendments and other “riders,” which are additional unrelated provisions that several senators called “poison pills.”

President Barack Obama has repeatedly called on Congress to lift the embargo completely, which has been weakened after several rounds of regulations adopted by his administration. The adviser to the president, Ben Rhodes, said last week that restrictions on travel and trade with the island that still persist, would be eliminated by Congress "sooner than people imagine."