Obama May Ease U.S. Travel to Cuba Even If Congress Won’t Act

A move by President Barack Obama to ease travel restrictions to Cuba would allow the administration to change U.S. policy toward the island even if legislation to repeal a wider travel ban isn’t approved by Congress this year.

Obama may change rules to allow more Americans to visit the island on educational and cultural trips, a U.S. official, who declined to be named because he isn’t authorized to speak on the subject, said Aug. 6. The official didn’t give additional details on what the changes would be.

“Lifting the congressional travel ban was always going to be difficult,” said Christopher Sabatini, policy director of the Council of the Americas business group, in a phone interview from New York. “This is an effort to move the policy forward in some way, but in a way that will be much more palatable to the embargo’s supporters.”

U.S. lawmakers have said since last year that they expected to pass legislation ending the 47-year ban that forbids most Americans from visiting the Caribbean island. Representative Sam Farr, a California Democrat, said in September that legislation would pass in 2009. Congressman Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat, said in March of this year that a bill might pass the House in April.

“We’re confident we can get it passed,” Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, said on Aug. 6. “Restricting the right of Americans to travel to Cuba means you are punishing the American people for transgressions of the Cuban government. That just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Still, legislation in the House and Senate has yet to reach the floor. The House Agriculture Committee approved a bill in June that would end the travel ban and simplify rules governing cash transactions with Cuba.

Ban Supporters

Supporters of the travel ban in Congress including Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, and Representative Connie Mack, a Florida Republican, who both said they opposed the possible easing of Cuba travel restrictions by Obama.

“This is not time to ease the pressure on the Castro regime,” Menendez said in an e-mailed statement. “Promoting travel and wide-spread remittances will give the regime a much-needed infusion of dollars that will only allow the Castro brothers to extend their reign of oppression and human rights violations.”

Easing restrictions would be a show of “weakness” by Obama, Mack added in phone interview from Washington.

Looser Rules

Obama doesn’t need congressional approval for changes in existing regulations. He first loosened travel rules on Cuba last year, making it easier for Cuban-Americans to visit and send money to relatives on the Caribbean island in a bid to help “promote the freer flow of information,” according to a White House statement.

Current rules allow Americans to travel to Cuba on educational and cultural trips if they are students or employees at qualifying universities and meet a set of additional requirements, such as doing research toward a graduate degree. All Cuba travel must be approved by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Asked if the administration is considering easing the travel rules, Michael Hammer, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said in an Aug. 6 e-mail: “We will continue to pursue policies that advance the U.S. national interest and support the Cuban people’s desire to freely determine their country’s future.”

Political Prisoners

A change in policy toward the communist government would follow President Raul Castro’s decision last month, in a deal brokered by the Roman Catholic Church, to release 52 political prisoners who were imprisoned in 2003 during a crackdown on dissidents. Raul, 79, succeeded his 83-year-old brother Fidel in 2008.

Travel and trade restrictions on Cuba have been adjusted by nearly every U.S. administration since then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower established trade limits in 1960, following Fidel’s revolution against the U.S.-backed Batista regime. Former President George W. Bush banned some educational exchanges not directly related to academic coursework in 2003, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.

The U.S. exported $532 million worth of goods to Cuba last year, most of it wheat, corn, meat and other farm goods. That total could be higher if rules governing cash payments were made simpler, U.S. farm groups say.

Groups such as the United States Tour Operators Association and the National Foreign Trade Council, a Washington-based organization of companies and trade associations, have called for a repeal of the ban, which is designed to isolate the Castro regime and keep hard currency out of the country.

Cuban Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero said in a March 25 interview that 1 million U.S. tourists may visit the island annually if the ban on travel is ended.

Dorgan and Enzi’s bill on the travel ban is S. 428.