Make us your home page

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

Prisoner release in Cuba could ease lifting of travel ban 07/10/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 9, 2010 8:49pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Last steel beam marks construction milestone for Tom and Mary James' museum


    ST. PETERSBURG — Tom and Mary James on Wednesday signed their names to the last steel beam framing the 105-ton stone mesa that will be built at the entrance of the museum that bears their name: the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art.

    The topping-out ceremony of the James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art was held Wednesday morning in downtown St. Petersburg. Mary James (from left), husband Tom and Mayor Rick Kriseman signed the final beam before it was put into place. When finished, the $55 million museum at 100 Central Ave. will hold up to 500 pieces of the couple's 3,000-piece art collection. [Courtesy of James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art]
  2. Heights Public Market to host two Tampa Bay food trucks


    TAMPA — The Heights Public Market announced the first two food trucks for its "rotating stall," which will feature new restaurants every four months. Surf and Turf and Empamamas will be rolled out first.

    Heights Public Market is opening this summer inside the Tampa Armature Works building.
[SKIP O'ROURKE   |   Times file photo]

  3. Author Randy Wayne White could open St. Pete's biggest restaurant on the pier

    Food & Dining

    ST. PETERSBURG — The story begins with Yucatan shrimp.

    St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin, pilot Mark Futch, Boca Grande, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, and author and businessman Randy Wayne White,  Sanibel, exit a Maule Super Rocket seaplane after taking a fight around Tampa Bay off the St. Petersburg waterfront, 6/28/17.  White and his business partners are in negotiations with the City of St. Petersburg to build a fourth Doc Ford's Rum Bar & Grille on the approach to the St. Petersburg Pier with a second event space on the pier according to White. The group met near Spa Beach after a ground breaking ceremony for the new pier. "We want to have our business open by the time the pier opens," said White. Other Dr. Ford restaurants are located on Sanibel, Captiva and Ft. Myers Beach. SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
  4. Guilty plea for WellCare Health Plans former counsel Thaddeus Bereday


    Former WellCare Health Plans general counsel Thaddeus M.S. Bereday pleaded guilty to one count of making a false statement to the Florida Medicaid program, and faces a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison. A sentencing date has not yet been set, acting U.S. Attorney W. Stephen Muldrow of the Middle District …

    WellCare Health Plans former general counsel Thaddeus M.S. Bereday, pleaded guilty to one count of making a false statement to the Florida Medicaid program, and faces a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison. A sentencing date has not yet been set, acting U.S. Attorney W. Stephen Muldrow of the Middle District of Florida stated Wednesday. [LinkedIn handout]
  5. DOT shows alternatives to former Tampa Bay Express toll lanes


    TAMPA — State transportation officials are evaluating at least a half-dozen alternatives to the controversial Tampa Bay interstate plan that they will workshop with the community over the next 18 months.

    Florida Department of Transportation consultant Brad Flom explains potential alternatives to adding toll lanes to Interstate 275 during a meeting Wednesday at the DOT’s Tampa office. Flom presented seven diagrams, all of which swapped toll lanes for transit, such as light rail or express bus, in the I-275 corridor from downtown Tampa to Bearss Avenue.