WASHINGTON, Nov. 11 (UPI) -- Of the static duo of relics in U.S. and Cuban diplomacy -- the U.S. trade embargo and Cuban President Fidel Castro -- the former has come as close as ever to a dramatic downshift in its four-decade history.
Last week, the Senate Foreign Relations committee approved by a vote of 13-5 a stand-alone bill, sponsored by Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., challenging directly the travel ban. It is now ready for voting on the Senate floor.
Also, on Oct. 23, the Senate joined the House in a vote of 59-38 in favor of an amendment to effectively lift the travel ban to Cuba by cutting its enforcement funding. The measure is now in conference between the two houses -- having been nestled into a much larger appropriations bill in hopes of saving it from veto. There is no word on when the bill will pass out of conference.
These two measures have made unprecedented progress in Congress towards lifting the U.S. travel ban to Cuba, a proviso added onto the general trade embargo by President Kennedy in 1963.
Although neither measure would dismantle the trade embargo as a whole, this is the closest Congress has come to successfully and dramatically altering U.S. policy towards Cuba in the last forty years, a spokesman for Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said. Flake sponsored the amendment in the House.
Short of the any-day-now possibility of Castro's death, some say it is also the best chance Cuba has had in the last four decades of Communist dictatorship to enter the open society.
"Right now, Castro has nearly absolute control of the information and ideas that Cubans are exposed to. By letting Americans travel to Cuba, where they'll be interacting with ordinary Cubans, Castro loses that control," Flake said.
The gains made towards lifting the travel ban are due in part to unprecedented bipartisan efforts in Congress.
Many Republicans, who traditionally have supported the ban and were largely responsible for upholding it in the Senate in 1999 when a similar lifting-measure appeared, have now changed their orientation. "What has bothered me for years is why we Republicans are more schizophrenic on Cuba policy. Trade, commerce and contact -- Republican diplomacy tools -- would help there as well," Flake said.
The split in the GOP is largely along the borders of the farm states, where Republican congressmen and their constituents are eager to increase trade -- currently allowed through a small exception on food and medicine for cash.
Flake remains uncertain about the future of the measure, however. The House, he said, has appointed conferees that will try to scrap the amendment.
The Senate, Flake said, may still be able to hold the amendment on for the President's signature. In the 34-member bicameral conference committee, 20 members -- 13 of whom are Senators -- voted in support of it.
The President's signature is another hurdle altogether, however. The White House has repeatedly said that Bush will veto any measure curtailing U.S. sanctions on Cuba.
A press secretary to Enzi, Coy Knobel, said that for scheduling reasons the stand-alone bill will probably not make it to the Senate floor this session. "So we'll have to see what we can do about getting it on the bill next year. We've got a busy agenda left to finish," he said.
Sen. Enzi was unavailable for comment.
Internationally the President's policy stance has been condemned by many. On last Tuesday, the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn the embargo for the twelfth straight year in a row. Also, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was quoted recently by the Miami Herald as saying, "President Bush, lift the embargo," in conscious imitation of President Ronald Reagan's call to topple the Berlin Wall.
This relationship between the lifting of the travel ban and a democratic future for Cuba is large in debate. Dr. Jaime Suchlicki, Director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, reflecting the opinion of much of the Cuban-American community, refutes the idea completely.
"I've looked at all the studies that have been done about the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Not one of them talks about tourists or McDonald's as being responsible for the fall of Communism," Suchlicki said.
Furthermore, opponents of lifting the ban argue that because the Cuban military owns 60 percent of the hotels and resorts in Cuba, tourist dollars will not trickle into general circulation in the country. American money would instead channel straight to the government and the Communist party members who are allowed to work in the resorts.
American travel-licenses to Cuba are controlled by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC). It grants travel licenses to Cuban-Americans visiting family, journalists, students, and humanitarian organizations. Treasury department officials estimate that between 160,000 and 200,000 Americans traveled legally to Cuba in 2002, making U.S. citizens the second largest traveling contingent to the country.
The Flake amendment would cut funding to OFAC, rendering it incapable of preventing or prosecuting Americans without licenses from traveling.
An estimated 22,000 to 25,000 Americans travel illegally to Cuba every year. The number of U.S. citizens penalized --usually in the form of fines --increased from 188 to 779 the year Bush took office, Treasury Department officials said. That number fell to 443 last year.
Bush vowed last month in a Rose Garden speech to tighten the travel restrictions and sanctions against Cuba. Critics of this policy point to Bush's need for the key electoral swing state of Florida in 2004, which is home to the highest concentration of anti-Castro and anti-travel Cuban-Americans in the country.