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
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
''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
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