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Prisoner release in Cuba could ease lifting of travel ban

The release of 52 prisoners by Cuba could be the last flick that pushes the 48-year-old U.S. travel ban over the edge.

As Spain's foreign minister put it during a press conference in Havana on Wednesday: The United States "will have to take note."

The "Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act," which would lift travel restrictions for all Americans and ease agricultural sales to Cuba, is the closest any major embargo-easing bill has ever come to being signed into law. It enjoys a filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate, and the president has not indicated he would veto it should the bill make it to his desk.

But there's a hangup in the House of Representatives.

Supporters said two weeks ago they were 13 votes short should it come to a floor vote in the House. So proponents and opponents of the bill are using all they have to pull fence-sitters on their side.

And that's where the prisoner release could provide decisive momentum.

A broad coalition of political forces are working on representatives who haven't made up their mind. Grass roots activists, organized through liberal think tanks such as the Latin America Working Group, keep calling their legislators. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International have come out in support of an end to the travel ban.

A longtime fence-sitting Miami group — the Cuba Study Group, founded by Cuban-American insurance tycoon Carlos Saladrigas — surprised everyone in June when it presented legislators a petition signed by 74 prominent dissidents, urging them to lift the travel ban. The list included Cubans who have been the focus of recent attention by U.S. media, such as blogger Yoani Sánchez and hunger striker Guillermo Fariñas.

Then, amid his ground-breaking negotiations with the Cuban government, the archbishop of Havana, Jaime Ortega, spent a whole week in Washington at the behest of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, urging legislators to let Americans travel freely to Cuba.

Last but not least, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a host of agribusiness trade associations recently upped the ante by threatening representatives it will "score" any vote against the bill. That means a "no" vote will come at a political cost.

Add to that recent surveys showing that more than 60 percent of Cuban-Americans are in favor of Cuba travel for all Americans, and you begin to understand why free-travel advocates believe that a slim majority in the House is within reach.

So the spotlight isn't exactly what opponents are looking for. Instead, it's back to playing the arcane rules of Congress, trying to mire the bill in committees. But again, that's where the prisoner release could make the difference.

The best shot opponents have right now is trying to block a House vote altogether by tying the bill up in the House Foreign Relations and Finance committees. Both the Washington Post and New York Times reported that the bill must go through these committees. This is only half true. If they decide to do so, the chairmen of both committees, Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and Barney Frank (D-Mass.), can waive a hearing and let the bill go straight through for debate and a vote on the floor of the House.

"The issues are clearly drawn, and Berman and Frank may feel the bill should be openly debated by the whole membership rather than fought over out of the spotlight by special interests," said John McAuliff, a free-travel activist with the New York-based Fund for Reconciliation and Development.

It's no surprise, then, that Cardinal Ortega during his visit in Washington met with at least one of the committee chairmen. If the Wall Street Journal is correct, the cardinal talked to Berman, the California Democrat in charge of the Foreign Relations Committee. (The archdiocese of Havana only confirms Ortega's trip, without saying whom he met.) If you were Berman, could you easily brush off a cleric who single-handedly managed to get dozens of political prisoners freed in Cuba, urging you to do the right thing?

That said, it's a narrow window of opportunity.

Says McAuliff: "Bottom line, this is our best and probably last opportunity to achieve the end of all travel restrictions. The House and Senate makeup after the midterm elections are unlikely to be as supportive, so we cannot miss this opportunity."

Why would any tourism business owner in Florida be in favor of opening the floodgates of tourism to Cuba? Easy.

At a time when "oil spill" are the words most associated with Florida in European and Canadian media, free travel from the United States to Cuba could be a win-win. If you come from Austria and you're concerned about oil lumps on Florida beaches, wouldn't the theme parks of Florida combined with a weekend trip to Havana be the perfect combination?

In order to get to Havana, cities such as Tampa and Orlando would need direct flights. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio told President Barack Obama so in a letter June 16.

Tampa and its airport are latecomers, sharing their application with dozens of other U.S. cities. And the White House is apparently in no hurry to make an executive decision. Two weeks ago, people close to the issue said the president's National Security Council had Cuba flight applications on its agenda. But nothing happened.

Johannes Werner is editor of Cuba Standard, a website featuring real-time news about the Cuban economy and business. He can be reached at johanneswerner@cubastandard.com.

Prisoner release in Cuba could ease lifting of travel ban 07/10/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 9, 2010 9:49pm]

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