Cuba travel gets new look, but ban stays

(CNN) — Word that the U.S. government could soon loosen travel restrictions to Cuba may have some American travelers imagining New Year’s in Havana or a spring break on the island’s famed Varadero Beach.

Not so fast.

The proposed changes would essentially reinstate measures that were in place under the Clinton administration — a far cry from an end to the travel ban, which would require an act of Congress.

Obama administration preparing to loosen rules on Cuba travel

Talk of the new rules also comes as Cuba has agreed to free 52 political prisoners by mid-November, but it’s not necessarily a signal that a complete lifting of U.S. travel restrictions is near.

“It certainly could indicate that the climate is more appropriate than it was before the prisoner release started,” said Shasta Darlington, a CNN international correspondent based in Havana.

“[But] one is an executive decision and the other is a legislative decision. I don’t think you can tie them together too closely.”

‘Frisson of the forbidden’

For now, Washington is focusing on “people-to-people” exchanges under which academics, corporations, humanitarian groups and athletic teams could travel to Cuba as a way to promote cultural exchanges and programs with universities.

In a sign of how politically sensitive the issue is, the move is already drawing criticism from some lawmakers.

Cuban-American politicians against loosening travel, aid rules

So while European and Canadian visitors continue to flock to Cuba for its tropical climate, Spanish colonial architecture and exotic flair, the island officially remains off-limits to U.S. tourists.

Not that that’s ever stopped some Americans from going anyway, bypassing the restrictions by hopping on a flight to Havana from Canada, Mexico and other destinations.

“It’s partly the frisson of the forbidden; the fact that it is off limits and there’s some kind of excitement quality for a lot of tourists,” said Christopher Baker, a journalist who has visited Cuba dozens of times and is the author of the “Moon Cuba” guidebook.

“At the same time, I run into quite a number of Americans who are kind of thumbing their nose at what they consider inappropriate, unconstitutional restrictions.”

The curiosity factor

Washington severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961 and has had an economic embargo in place since 1962. Americans seeking to travel to the island nation must obtain permission to do so and must fit into special categories, like journalists or people visiting a close relative.

Last year, more than 67,000 U.S. citizens obtained approval from the U.S. government to enter Cuba by air, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Travel and Tourism Industries.

iReport: Send us your photos of Cuba

Supporters of the ban say it needs to continue to put the pressure on the Castro regime, but an April 2009 CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll found that 64 percent of Americans thought the U.S. government should allow citizens to travel to Cuba.

Travel agents report getting a fair amount of interest from clients about the island, though the only help they can offer is to refer them to operators outside the United States. Some travel agents say U.S. tourists are eager to see Cuba as it is now, before any major loosening of restrictions.

“Americans aren’t going for the beach vacation. Americans are going to Cuba out of curiosity,” said Terry McCabe, national director of leisure for Altour in Paramus, New Jersey.

“Once you leave the resort areas along the beach, Cuba is a time capsule. I think within 18 to 24 months after they open it up for [U.S.] tourism, some of that will start to change.”

It’s estimated that up to 500,000 additional U.S. tourists could pour into Cuba the first year after the lifting of the travel ban, according to a study prepared for the Cuba Policy Foundation. That number would almost triple five years after the end of the restrictions.

“We’re 90 miles off the coast of Florida, and there are very few Americans here. That would clearly change quickly,” said Darlington, the CNN correspondent.

Cuba’s splashy marketing

But even without a significant number of U.S. travelers, tourism is a vital industry for Cuba.

The country welcomed more than 2.4 million visitors in 2009, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization. About 38 percent were from Canada, 34 percent were from Europe and 28 percent were from other regions of the world.

Havana devotes “significant resources” to building new tourist facilities and renovating historic structures for use in tourism, according to the U.S. Department of State.

It also markets itself aggressively to visitors. The Cuba Tourist Board in Canada, for example, offers a splashy web page tempting tourists with Cuba’s “breathtaking beaches and scenery; fascinating history; rich culture; ecological wonders and more.”

That’s something American travelers might see if some lawmakers have their way.

Earlier this year, the House Agriculture Committee approved a bill that would end the travel ban on Americans to Cuba. The legislation appears to be stalled in the House of Representatives, but it received the thumbs up from the American Society of Travel Agents, which says Americans should be allowed to globetrot without restrictions.

Time: Will the White House fight to end the Cuba travel ban?

“Were the American people allowed to travel to Havana, as they currently are allowed to travel to Pyongyang, Tehran, Khartoum and other cities whose nations’ leaders are publicly opposed to American interests, they could serve as ambassadors of freedom and American values to the Cuban people,” said Colin Tooze, the group’s vice president of government affairs.

For now, that will have to wait.


Business urges action to lift Cuba travel ban

(Reuters) – A top U.S. business group on Tuesday urged the House of Representatives to quickly approve a bill that chips away at the U.S. embargo on Cuba by ending decades of restrictions on travel to the island.

“It is time to end the unproductive preoccupation with an aging and moribund Communist regime, and begin to lay the groundwork for a U.S. role in the future of Cuba,” the Chamber of Commerce’s chief lobbyist, Bruce Josten, said in a letter to leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The House Agriculture Committee voted 25-20 in June to approve a bill lifting the decades-old ban on travel to Cuba and to remove hurdles to food sales to the Caribbean island.

The chamber urged the House Foreign Affairs Committee to approve the legislation when lawmakers return from their recess in mid-September so the full House can vote on the bill.

The Senate would have to approve the measure for it become law. But the Senate has opponents of loosening travel restrictions while Cuba’s present government is in power, and Senate rules allow a single senator to use procedural hurdles to delay and sometimes block legislation.

Senators Byron Dorgan and Mike Enzi, who support lifting the travel ban, have said they have the votes to pass such a bill. It takes 60 votes to overcome procedural hurdles in the 100-member Senate.

U.S. business and advocacy groups have said they expect President Barack Obama to issue an executive order to relax travel restrictions to Cuba for some Americans.

The small steps would make it easier for groups of Americans to once again go to the Communist island as part of academic, cultural or religious exchanges, as thousands of them did during the Clinton administration, a congressional aide told Reuters last week.

Completely lifting the travel ban would require an act of Congress, something that supporters of the embargo have been able to thwart in the past.

In a letter last week to Obama, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and four other Cuban-American lawmakers underscored their opposition to loosening travel restrictions.

“We are deeply troubled that such changes would result in economic benefits to the Cuban regime and would significantly undermine U.S. foreign policy and security objectives,” the group said.

It also included Senator Robert Menendez and Representative Albio Sires, both New Jersey Democrats, as well as Representatives Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart, both Florida Republicans.

The letter from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce came as the Catholic Church in Cuba said it expected the Cuban government to soon release another six political prisoners with the condition that they go to Spain, bringing the total to 32 in recent weeks.

Under an agreement reached in June with the Catholic Church, the Cuban government is expected to release 20 more dissidents imprisoned by the island’s Communist government in a 2003 crackdown against opponents.

Miami Cubans Now Overwhelmingly Favor Lifting Travel Ban

Miami new times: Mr. President, tear down this wall…err… travel ban!

Nearly two-thirds of Cuban-Americans living in Miami now believe the island would be better off if the U.S. government’s travel ban were lifted, according to a new Univ. of Miami study.

The apparent change in attitude towards the travel ban could give Democrats — who have already said they have the votes to pass the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act — the political capital to push through changes later this year.

The poll found that 64 percent of Cuban-Americans now want to scrap the travel restrictions. Surprisingly, all age groups favor ditching the travel ban, including 62 percent of those 66-years-old or older. Overall, the numbers are up five percent from late last year, which was already at an all-time high. The new study was overseen by Dr. Andy Gomez, a senior fellow at UM’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.

Unsurprisingly, 92 percent of those surveyed said they had given up hope in Cuban President Raul Castro improving social and economic conditions on the island. However, the poll was completed between June 28 and July 7, the day before the Catholic Church announced a deal for Cuba to release many of its political prisoners.

Although Cuban-Americans may not be holding their breaths in anticipation of the Castros instituting changes, 73 percent still believe the next Cuban president will come from within the country — not from Little Havana.

The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act has already advanced out of the House Agriculture Committee and could reach the floor for a full vote later this year. It will face stiffer opposition in the Senate, however, where the Cuban-American senator from New Jersey, Robert Menendez, has promised a filibuster.

If the initiative fails, experts say President Obama could end-up lifting the travel ban by executive order.

Mafiosi buy votes to prevent travel to Cuba THE U.S. Chamber of Commerce has surprised congress members by warning that it proposes to “monitor votes” on the bipartisan bill aiming to reestablish the right for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba and sell food to the island in a more normal way.

The tone of letters expressing support for a relaxation of the measures against Cuba never implied a virtual threat like it does now.

Bruce Josten, lobbying chief for the Chamber of Commerce, said that they will watch the count closely if the bill – passed on June 30 by the Agriculture Committee – gets to the floor.

The unusual warning came after an exposé by the Federal Elections Commission over vote-buying by the U.S. Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee (PAC), which prompts the Miami ultra-right Cuban-American lobby, which has directed more than $73,000 in the first four months of 2010 to block approval of the bill.

The PAC “donated” around $11 million to close to 400 candidates and legislators between 2004 and 2008. According to a statement from the Public Campaign non-party group, 53 Democratic legislators received more than $16,000 per head and at least 18 of them changed their position.

Republicans Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln and Mario Díaz-Balart and Democratic Senator Robert Menéndez have benefited the most.

A survey taken in 2008 by World Public Opinion concluded that 70% of U.S. citizens are in favor of travel to Cuba. Among Cuban Americans, 55% are against the so-called embargo.

For example, Congressman Mike McIntyre, Democrat, North Carolina, said that he had spoken with Miami Republicans Lincoln and Mario Díaz-Balart about their family’s experience in Fidel Castro’s Cuba and he changed his vote “because of the horrors that they suffered.” It is not difficult to realize that that experience is only one of support for the Batista dictatorship, given that Rafael J. Díaz-Balart, founder of the dynasty and the grandfather of Lincoln and Mario, was the legal adviser of the United Fruit Company in Banes – likewise the birthplace of Fulgencio Batista. He was government minister from 1952 to 1958. His son Rafael, father of the congressmen, was deputy minister.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Democrat for Weston, has received $75,700 from the Committee; Kendrick Meek, Miami Democrat, is at eighth place on the list. Montana Republican Denny Rehberg changed from being an enthusiastic opponent of the blockade to voting in favor of the prohibitions, after receiving $10,500 from the PAC.

As majority leader, in 2004 legislator Tom DeLay prevented the restoration of U.S. citizens’ right to travel to Cuba, which had been passed with a wide majority in both Houses via a bipartisan initiative. DeLay made the bill disappear in complicity with the Díaz-Balarts.

The Cuban travel ban was established close to half a century ago, in January 1961, by Dwight Eisenhower. At the end of his term, President William Clinton eased travel to Cuba in order to win influence on the island. But President George W. Bush prohibited it again, in order to thank ultra-right Cuban Americans whose vote fraud in Florida made it possible to strip Al Gore, the Democratic candidate, of the presidency.

Bill HR 4645 is sponsored by 62 congress members, led by Democrat Collin Peterson, chair of the House Agriculture Committee, and Republican Jerry Moran of Kansas, and is backed by more than 140 business, social, economic, political and religious organizations.

In addition to the Chamber of Commerce and the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), which groups together more than 300 important U.S. companies, these include USA Engage and the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), which also sent letters of support to legislators. As did the Council of Churches (Protestants) and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; the National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA) and the American Farm Bureau Federation; the Fund for Reconciliation and Development and the National Corn Growers Association.

General James Hill, ex-commander in chief of the Southern Command; General Barry McCaffrey, former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy; Colin Powell, former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and nine more former high level members of that country’s Armed Forces have acknowledged that the current policy of isolating Cuba has failed. José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch, expressed the same sentiment in a Congress hearing. All those players agree that the initiative is not doing away with the embargo (blockade), but is of high interest to the United States.

Bruce Josten, executive vice president of the Chamber of Commerce, cited a study undertaken last March by Texas A&M University, which revealed that reducing restrictions on exports to Cuba could start a boom, because it would lead to sales worth $365 million, 6,000 new jobs and an economic impact amounting to $1.1 billion for the country. But Congress is still being subjected to the pressure of bribes distributed by the Miami Mafia with government funds.

Steve Yoder, chair of the NGFA’s Joint Trade Policy A-Team and of the U.S. Grains Council, affirms that the embargo is affecting ranchers and farmers. In the 2008-09 growing season, Cuba was Washington’s tenth-largest corn customer. In order to retain this market Yoder admits that they need to eliminate payments in advance and the requirement to use banks in third countries, provisions that the H.R. 4645 bill would suppress, in addition to the quotas that generally accompany those permits. It also established that the permits will have the same payment requirements as U.S. exports to other countries. So Cuba would not have to pay in advance and in cash before a ship leaves a U.S. port with merchandise for the island.

The bill could be debated in the House after August 8 and it has been said that it needs 13 votes more than those committed to date. In the Senate, Democrat Byron Dorgan and Republican Mike Enzi were confident that a similar bill to that of the House will be passed. They are confirming that they have the 62 votes needed. But Cuban-American Robert Menéndez, chair of the Senate Democrats, has threatened a filibuster in order to bring the session to a close without a vote. The battle will continue to be a difficult one.

Cuba Travel Ban Losing Steam

HAVANA TIMES, March 31 (IPS) – A bipartisan group of twenty-two U.S. senators and interest groups is backing a bill that would end the travel ban on US citizens wishing to visit Cuba.

The ‘Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act’ was introduced Tuesday by Senators Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat and Senate Democratic Policy Committee chair, and Michael Enzi, a Republican from Wyoming. They were joined by 20 cosponsors, including influential Senators Christopher Dodd and Richard Lugar, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“The people of Cuba ought to be free,” said Senator Dorgan, pointing to the U.S.’s failed Cuba policy in achieving this. The nearly 50-year-old embargo on Cuba is only “punishing American people,” he said.

If passed, the bill would prohibit the president from regulating or prohibiting travel to or from Cuba by U.S. citizens or legal residents or any of the transactions ordinarily incident to such travel, except in time of war or armed hostilities between the United States and Cuba, or of imminent danger to the public health or the physical safety of U.S. travelers.

The Cuban embargo, introduced in 1961 and subsequently tightened further, prohibits travel to and business dealings with Cuba for all U.S. citizens. Many have argued that this policy actually thwarts U.S. interests and further strengthens the government there.

“For the first time in almost a decade, Congress is acting to loosen the Cuba embargo and send these modest reforms to a president who has promised to change the policy rather than issue veto threats or keep things as they are,” said a joint statement by several groups, including the Centre for Democracy in the Americas and the Washington Office on Latin America. – Best villas with Swimming pool in Havana

Freedom to Travel to Cuba

HAVANA TIMES, April 1 – The US Senate officially rolled out a bill Tuesday that would allow all Americans to travel to Cuba without restrictions. The bill, S 428, introduced by Democrat Senator Dorgan, and originally co-sponsored by Democrat Senator Dodd and Republican Senators Enzi and Lugar, now has 20 co-sponsors.

On Thursday, the House of Representatives will present to the press their version of the bill HR 874, which now has 122 cosponsors. The tremendous support for the legislation in both chambers is expected to cause the bill to be eventually brought to a vote. A similar bill, introduced during the last congressional session, also received a large numbers of co-sponsors, but the threat of a White House veto insured that it died in committee.

Times have changed. Obama is not beholden to the Miami ultra-right, as evidenced by the fact that he won the presidency on a platform that included easing restrictions on Cuban-American travel to the island and on reviewing ways to improve US-Cuba relations. It is a given that, if the bill passes congress, Obama will sign it into law.

In addition to the Senators, today’s press conference featured representatives from the American Farm Bureau Federation, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Human Rights Watch.

Organizers distributed letters of support from two Cuban-American groups, The Cuba Study Group and the Emergency Network of Cuban-American Scholars and Artists for Change in US-Cuba Policy (ENCASA), as well as a letter signed by leaders of 45 national Cuban-American organizations.

Fishing on the Malecon seawall, photo: Bill Hackwell

Fishing on the Malecon seawall, photo: Bill Hackwell

The business community also showed its support with letters from the American Farm Bureau Federation, US Chamber of Commerce, National Foreign Trade Council, National Retail Federation, Organization for International Investment in the United States, US Council for International Business, USA*Engage, National Wheat Growers, US Wheat Associates, National Tour Association, Port of Corpus Christi, US Dairy Export Council, and the National Milk Producers Federation.

Even Amnesty International and Freedom House-both long time critics of the Cuban government- found themselves joining with the National Council of Churches, US Conference of Catholic Bishops, World Church Service, and a coalition of 17 other national religious and ecumenical organizations to call for an end to the bad neighbor policy.

With pressure from every country in the hemisphere including his own, Obama will have to step up to the plate soon and show some leadership. Otherwise, he will find himself lagging behind the tide of change instead of being the tide of change he promised in his campaign. The up coming Americas Summit (April 17-19) will give him an opportunity to show us what he’s made of. – Fy & Drive in Cuba with the professionals