Will the White House Fight to End the Cuba Travel Ban?

As reports surface that the Obama Administration plans to expand legal travel opportunities to Cuba, observers are wondering if the action will spur the end of the entire travel ban

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Desmond Boylan / Reuters

Cuban flags fly beside the U.S. Interests Section office in Havana

After it looked a couple of months ago as if a bill lifting the ban on U.S. travel to Cuba had the momentum to pass Congress, it now appears stalled in the House of Representatives. The bill, which would also make food sales to Cuba easier, cleared the House Agriculture Committee but still needs a vote in two other committees — Financial Services and Foreign Affairs — and it may not even come up for a full vote this year. So as reports surface that the Obama Administration plans on its own to expand legal travel opportunities to Cuba, the question is whether such a move will spur or spoil the House bill — whose passage would mark the biggest shift in U.S. Cuba policy since a trade embargo was issued against the communist island in 1962.

President Obama, according to Administration and congressional sources, intends before the year is out to loosen restrictions on visits to Cuba by U.S. students, entertainers and other goodwill ambassadors. Backers of increased American engagement with Cuba applaud the proposal, which is part of the President's executive prerogative under the embargo. In reality, the action would simply be taking U.S. policy back to the Clinton Administration, before former President George W. Bush all but froze that kind of people-to-people contact with Cuba. But it's less clear if Obama intends his new regulations to be a signal of support for eliminating the entire travel ban — which only Congress can do — or an unspoken message that this is as far as he wants to take the battle against the embargo's dogged supporters on Capitol Hill.

The bill's bipartisan backers, not surprisingly, see it as the former. House staffers say the White House Cuba regulations will be a shot in the arm for the broader travel legislation when Congress returns from its recess next month. Embargo foes agree. "This is the Administration essentially saying, 'We've done what we can, and now we want Congress to take the larger step,'" says Jake Colvin, vice president for global trade issues at the independent National Foreign Trade Council in Washington, D.C. "This bill still has a lot of hurdles, but this implicit White House support gives it momentum again."

Echoing the optimism is Patrick Kilbride, senior director for the Americas at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The organization represents a sizable bloc of farmers and businesspeople, many of them Republican-aligned, who want the Cuba embargo scrapped so they can reap the $1 billion in annual sales to the island that a recent Texas A&M University study says they're losing out on. "We think these new [travel] steps are a very positive signal that the [Administration] would like to move forward" to lift the full travel ban, says Kilbride. He also confirms that the chamber is considering scoring the votes of Representatives and Senators if and when the bill finally hits their floors.

The House bill seems slowed at this point by more serious opposition from the chamber's pro-embargo forces and especially the pro-embargo lobby, led by the US-Cuba Democracy PAC, a major contributor to congressional campaigns. The Senate version, which deals only with the travel ban, has yet to get a Foreign Relations Committee vote and most likely faces a filibuster from pro-embargo Senators if it can ever get to the full chamber.

But another reason to be confident, says Colvin, is that "this is the best diplomatic environment we've seen in a long time" for dismantling the embargo. That's because last month, Cuban President Raúl Castro, after a dissident hunger striker died earlier this year, released 52 political prisoners who were locked up in 2003 by his elder brother, then President Fidel Castro (who ceded power to Raúl in 2006 due to ill health). Obama last year had left the ball in Havana's court when he reversed his predecessor's policy and let Cuban Americans travel and send remittances more freely to Cuba. Raúl's prisoner release, say diplomats, now makes the next move Obama's, and many see his new travel regulations as part of that. But it's doubtful the Castros will feel international pressure to reciprocate, with further democratic or economic openings in Cuba, unless the travel ban that's been in place since 1963 is eradicated.

Proponents of doing just that insist there's more consensus than ever in the U.S. to ditch the Cuba embargo and its travel ban, which, after almost 50 years, have utterly failed to dislodge the Castro regime. Opening Cuba to Americans, they believe, will do more to stimulate democratization there than isolating it has. Even a majority of Cuban Americans now agree.

Still, for all the good vibes the bill's backers feel from the White House right now, some note warily that Obama has been loath to spend political capital in Cuba, or the rest of Latin America for that matter. Critics, for example, point to his decision last year to stop applying pressure against coup leaders in Honduras, who'd ousted a leftist President, when conservative Republicans in Congress objected.

Embargo supporters, including Cuban-American Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a Democrat, are already blasting Obama's plans to relax Cuba travel. "This is not the time to ease the pressure on the Castro regime," Menendez said this month, insisting it will only give the brothers "a much needed infusion of dollars that will only extend their reign of oppression." As a result, says one congressional aide who asked not to be identified, when it comes time for the White House to give the bill more full-throated support, "there's a fear they may just decide that the fight's not worth it."

But Democratic Congressman Howard Berman of California, a co-sponsor of the bill, says tearing down the travel ban is about more than Cuban rights — it's also about the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens to travel freely abroad. "Letting U.S. citizens travel to Cuba is not a gift to the Castros — it is in the interest of our own citizens," Berman said after the House committee vote this summer. "It's time to trust our own people and restore their right to travel." It's the sort of argument Obama usually agrees with. But now he may need to show how strongly he concurs when Congress returns next month.