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House Votes to Lift Ban on Cuba Travel; White House Sought to Keep the Sanctions
Published on Wednesday, July 24, 2002 in the Boston Globe
House Votes to Lift Ban on Cuba Travel
White House Sought to Keep the Sanctions
by Susan Milligan
 

WASHINGTON - The House voted last night to lift the ban on US citizens traveling to communist Cuba, stunning hard-liners and defying a plea by the Bush administration to retain harsh, 40-year-old sanctions against a nation it sees as a terrorist state.

In an unexpectedly lopsided and bipartisan 262-167 vote, the House approved an amendment by Representative Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, to prohibit funds from being used to enforce the travel ban, effectively lifting it. Since the amendment was attached to a Treasury Department and Postal Service appropriations bill, it had to pertain to spending to be considered in order.

''This is big. This is the ice-breaker,'' said a beaming Flake after the vote late last night. The House also approved a measure allowing Americans to send money to individuals in Cuba, generally family members, and removing hurdles to sending food and medicine to Cuba.

''Americans can travel to North Korea and Iran, two-thirds of the axis of evil, but not to Cuba,'' said Representative William Delahunt, Democrat of Quincy. ''That makes no sense, I would suggest.''

The Senate version of the Treasury appropriations bill includes language similar to the Flake amendment, and may be considered on the Senate floor before the August recess.

''I think there would be strong support'' for the provision on the Senate floor, said Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota.

The White House lobbied furiously against the Flake measure, worried that it would undermine the Bush administration's efforts to isolate Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and frustrate the war on terrorism.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill sent a letter earlier this month to House lawmakers, urging them not to kill the travel ban and saying they would recommend that President Bush veto the appropriations bill if it included the provision on the travel ban.

But the administration was roundly defeated in a battle led by lawmakers who said the sanctions against Cuba had done nothing to oust Castro and would only keep US citizens from being ambassadors of democracy to the small nation, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

''We worked it hard,'' said Delahunt, a leading member of the Cuba Working Group. ''The sense was that the policy was abysmal; it's failed. But there was no focus, no organizational method'' among lawmakers, he said.

The Cuba Working Group, which also includes Massachusetts Democratic Representatives James McGovern of Worcester and Steve Lynch of Boston, lobbied colleagues one by one to get the vote, Delahunt said.

Opponents argued that allowing Americans to travel to Cuba would help prop up Castro and would interfere with Bush's fight against terrorism.

''This is not a friendly country. They hate Americans. There is no reason for us to embrace Castro,'' said Representative Henry Hyde, Republican of Illinois and chairman of the House International Relations Committee. ''I think that Mr. Castro deserves to be treated as an outcast. It is Cuba that must change its policy.''

But critics noted that sanctions have not brought down Castro, who has led Cuba for more than four decades. They accuse the Bush administration policy of pandering to a small but politically active group of Cuban Americans in Florida to gain critical support in an important campaign state.

''There's no need to play Florida politics tonight. Let's do what's right,'' said Representative Jose Serrano, Democrat of New York.

The House also voted to ease burdens against selling certain kinds of agricultural products to Cuba. It defeated an effort by Representative Charles Rangel, Democrat of New York, to lift the entire embargo against Cuba.

House GOP leaders tried to undermine the measure by offering another amendment, sponsored by Representative Porter Goss, Republican of Florida, that would have required Bush to certify that Cuba was not aiding terrorists or developing biological weapons before the travel ban could be eased.

Delahunt and Flake worried that the Goss measure would be a poison pill that would kill their effort. Instead, it failed dramatically, 247-182. ''This is all about freedom. Our government should not be telling us where we can and cannot travel,'' Flake said during floor debate.

The House approved a similar measure last year, but it was not adopted because the Senate had not included the language on the travel ban in its bill.

Senator Byron Dorgan, Democrat of South Dakota, thought there was strong sympathy for the amendment in the Senate, but decided not to offer it because it was so soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, said Dorgan spokesman Barry Piatt.

But Dorgan put language lifting the travel ban to Cuba in the Senate Treasury and Postal Service appropriations measure this year. Senate passage of the measure would put Bush in the position of vetoing it or alienating a Cuban-American community that has been friendly to Republicans, including Bush's brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

Lawmakers who want to ease relations with Cuba ''are equivocating about whether some terrorists are OK and some are not,'' said Representative Robert Menendez, Democrat of New York.

But opponents of the hardline policy against Cuba said it was inconsistent, since US citizens are allowed to travel to Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, and other countries with poor human rights records.

''When we rounded up the Taliban, where did we send them? They sent them to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba,'' Lynch said.

© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company

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