Cuba in The U.S. Congress

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Holding true to its historic ability to garner international press attention seemingly disproportionate to its geographic size, Cuba has once again claimed the spotlight. From a now disputed statement from Fidel Castro that the ”Cuban model” no longer functions to the glimmering possibility that the U.S. government will remove Cold War-era travel bans, it is clear that change is in the Caribbean winds. As part of COHA’s memoranda series on Cuba, this press release will update our readership on the status of the Cuba travel ban in the United States Congress.

As a recent TIME article reports, the bill in the House of Representatives, H.R. 4645: Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act appears to be stalled after clearing the initial hurdle of the House Committee on Agriculture by a vote of 25-20-1. The bill has two purposes: “to remove obstacles to the legal sales of United States agricultural commodities to Cuba [thus its appearance in the Committee on Agriculture] and to end travel restrictions on all Americans to Cuba.” Its next step involves passing the House Financial Services and Foreign Affairs committees, then passing a vote before the full House.

The Senate version, S. 428: Freedom to Travel Cuba Act, has not seen major action since February of 2009. While it has 40 co-sponsors in addition to its primary sponsor, soon-to-retire Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND), Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) has vowed to filibuster the bill. From his statement: “So let me make this clear: I oppose and will filibuster any attempt to pass the bill in the Senate,” Menendez went on to compare Havana to “regimes in places like Iran”, and to cite the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo earlier this year, an opposition hunger striker who had been arrested in 2003, as evidence of “one of the world’s harshest dictatorships” which “denies its own people basic human rights.” It is to be wondered if Senator Menendez’s feelings changed at all after Havana released 52 political prisoners in July of this year, or after Fidel Castro directly criticized Ahmadinejad just a few days ago.

Thus, it seems that the greatest possibility for change to Cuban-United States relations will once again come from the White House. TIME reports that President Obama plans to ease the Cuban travel restrictions to essentially return them to the levels seen under President Clinton. Importantly, the article calls into question the result of such an action: will it incite Congress to act further, or sate the already tepid ardor of the anti-restrictionists?

As Congress returns from recess for just four weeks, before leaving again for the November elections, the bill’s fate remains murky. With supporters and opponents of varying degrees of passion on both sides of the aisle, as well as the expected shake-up of the lines of that aisle after November, it is starting to appear that, rather than congressional action, Obama’s expected initiative might be the foundation from which Washington takes its next step toward Cuba–hopefully with no subsequent steps back.