U.S. House votes to lift travel ban to Cuba


WASHINGTON, Reuters

The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday voted to lift the ban on Americans traveling to Cuba and only narrowly rejected a move to lift altogether the 40-year-old embargo on the communist-led island.

In a move that pits it against President George W. Bush, the Republican-led House voted 240-186 to lift long-standing restrictions on Americans traveling to the island. The House passed a similar bill last year but it died in the Senate.

But the House rejected 227-201 the full repeal of the trade embargo, which was eased last year to allow the sales of food and medicine.

Democrats have said they would continue to press for broader easing of the sanctions, which they say have failed to weaken the grip of President Fidel Castro on the island nation 90 miles (150 km) off Florida.

But many conservative Republicans and the anti-Castro Cuban exile community oppose any such move, saying commerce with the United States would bolster the communist leader.

They argued that repeal of the travel ban should come only after Castro releases political prisoners and returns fugitives from U.S. justice.

“Before we go down there with our bathing suits in hand let’s make sure these brave human rights and religious prisoners are released,” said Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican.

He said Cuba also was sheltering 77 fugitives wanted in the United States for crimes including killing a police officer and drug trafficking.

The White House in a statement said it “strongly opposes any amendment that weakens sanctions against the Castro regime.”

The votes on Cuba came on a US$32.7 billion bill to fund the Treasury Department and general government operations next fiscal year starting on Oct. 1. The House later passed it on a 334-94 vote.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is to take up its version of the bill on Thursday. Infringement of rights Most Democrats, joined by a number of Republicans, said limits on travel to Cuba infringed on U.S. citizens’ rights.

“Americans should be free to travel wherever they want,” said Republican Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona who sponsored the travel ban repeal.

They also argued that the travel ban and other sanctions to separate the United States and Cuba have failed to oust Castro, while engagement with the country would be more effective.

Under current restrictions, U.S. citizens must get a license from the Treasury Department to travel to Cuba, and these are limited to journalists, academics, government officials and people on humanitarian missions.

A number of Republicans said a flow of U.S. tourists would help shore up Castro with an influx of money, but do nothing to help the Cuban people.

“The benefits of free trade can’t flow to people who are ruthlessly oppressed,” House Republican Whip Tom DeLay of Texas said. “Why in the world would we reach out now to draw his evil, abusive regime back to safety? Let it fall.”

Despite his call for tougher enforcement of the trade embargo, Bush earlier this month irked the Cuban exile community by suspending for another six months the right of U.S. firms to sue foreign companies doing business with expropriated properties in Cuba.

Following a similar action by former Democratic President Bill Clinton, Bush extended the suspension of part of the Helms-Burton law, which was passed in 1996 after Cuban MiG fighters shot down two planes flown by Miami-based Cuban exiles.