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Bill to OK travel to Cuba to be unveiled

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A group of senators and other supporters will unveil a bill Tuesday to lift the 47-year-old travel ban to Cuba.

Senators who support lifting travel restrictions to Cuba say it will help improve U.S. relations with the country.
Proponents of lifting the ban have been trying for years but lacked the votes in Congress or a president who supported the measure. Now, with Democrats holding majorities in both houses of Congress and controlling the White House, supporters said they believe their chance is at hand.
Senators who support lifting travel restrictions to Cuba say it will help improve U.S. relations with the country. "Seems to me when you have a policy that has failed for five decades, you ought to take a look at it again and see if you should modify it," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, one of the bill's sponsors. "We allow Americans travel to Vietnam and China, both communist countries."
The United States broke diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, two years after Fidel Castro assumed power. In 1962, the United States established a trade embargo. Both policies remain in place.
In addition, the United States has imposed other restrictions over the years, most recently under President Bush.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, another sponsor of the bill, issued a draft report in February that said it's time to reconsider the U.S. economic sanctions. Lugar is the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Video Watch why some senators want to lift the ban »
"After 47 years ... the unilateral embargo on Cuba has failed to achieve its stated purpose of 'bringing democracy to the Cuban people,' " Lugar wrote in a letter accompanying the 21-page draft report.
"The current U.S. policy has many passionate defenders, and their criticism of the Castro regime is justified. Nevertheless, we must recognize the ineffectiveness of our current policy and deal with the Cuban regime in a way that enhances U.S. interests."
Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Connecticut, also supports lifting the travel ban.
He and others said they see an opportunity for improved relations because the ailing Castro ceded power last year to his younger brother, Raul, seen as more pragmatic and less idealistic and doctrinaire.
Cuban-Americans mostly have opposed any shift in policy, but that view may be changing. Many second- and third-generation Cuban-Americans have views that are more lenient than those of elder Cubans who came to the United States in the 1960s.
And some Cuban-Americans have a vested interest in lifting the travel ban. Tessie Aral, owner of a Miami, Florida, travel agency that specializes in trips to Cuba, is one of them.
"I think a lot of Americans are going to want to travel to Cuba because it's been the forbidden fruit for so long," Aral said. "For our country to tell us which country we can travel to, I think that's just archaic."
Daniel Erikson, author of "The Cuba Wars," said there's one problem with lifting the travel ban -- the trade embargo, which stops U.S. companies from doing business in Cuba.
"So you would have American tourists traveling to Cuba driving around on Chinese buses, staying at Spanish hotels, eating Canadian food," Erikson said, adding, "The only McDonald's I've ever seen in Cuba is at the military base at Guantanamo Bay."
President Obama has indicated he favors changes in U.S.-Cuba policy but has not offered details. Cracks in the policy have started to develop though.
The $410 billion budget Obama signed this month makes it easier for Cuban-Americans to travel to Cuba and to send money to family members on the island. It also could facilitate the sale of agricultural and pharmaceutical products to Cuba.
Three provisions attached to the omnibus spending bill loosened restrictions enacted by Bush after he came to office in 2001.
Analysts have said they saw the move as a way for the Obama administration to start thawing relations with Cuba before the Fifth Summit of the Americas brings together the U.S. president and 33 other leaders from the Western Hemisphere in mid-April in Trinidad and Tobago.
Other groups also are calling for a new direction.
The nonprofit Brookings Institution said in a recent report that the administration should lift travel restrictions and adopt other measures to start normalizing relations. A group of 19 academics, opinion leaders and diplomats met for 18 months to formulate 33 short-, medium- and long-term initiatives compiled in a report called "U.S. Policy Toward a Cuba in Transition."
But any changes would have to get past Cuban-Americans in Congress, such as Sen. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey.
"The government is pure and simple a brutal dictatorship," Menendez said in a recent speech. "The average Cuban lives on an income of less than a dollar a day."
Nonetheless, supporters said they believe they can get the bill to the White House for Obama to sign.
CNN's Arthur Brice contributed to this report.
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