U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami is using thousands of Cuban-American families as pawns in a game of chicken with Democrats and President Barack Obama over next year's federal budget. This is a shameful tactic from a member of Congress who was sent to Washington to represent his district and his state. His fellow Republicans — including C.W. Bill Young of Indian Shores — should not put their names to a plan that hurts Cuban-Americans and Florida's economy.
A rider Diaz-Balart attached to a massive spending bill working its way through Congress could effectively bar Cuban-Americans from freely visiting the island or sending cash back home. Under President George W. Bush, Cuban-Americans were allowed one trip every three years and could send up to $1,200 per year in cash assistance to the island. President Barack Obama lifted virtually all these restrictions in 2009. Diaz-Balart's rider could restore the Bush-era restrictions and impose a tighter definition of "family," making it harder for Cuban-Americans to visit their extended relatives back home.
Diaz-Balart is fighting the Cold War 50 years too late. Banning family members from traveling home has no political impact on Cuba's government. If anything, expanding people-to-people contacts between Cuba and America can only further threaten the declining Castro regime. And Diaz-Balart has no business, anyway, telling American citizens where they can and cannot travel. If he has such a compelling case, he should propose the rider as a stand-alone bill, not attach it like a leech to must-pass legislation. His agenda is wrong and so are his methods.
Tens of thousands of Cuban-Americans have taken advantage of the easier travel rules in recent years. They have reconnected with family, spent time with sick loved ones and helped ease the burden back home for those who cannot make ends meet. And the expansion of direct flights between the United States and Cuba has made it cheaper and more convenient for Cuban-Americans to visit loved ones. It also has sparked new business across the country. Eighteen U.S. airports, including six in Florida, are now authorized to offer direct flights to Cuba. Service began at Tampa International Airport this fall; by the end of this month, more than 7,600 passengers are expected to have made the trip. TIA expects 43,000 passengers to book the flights next year, generating almost $700,000 in revenue. Diaz-Balart and Congress would be killing a new industry right as it gets off the ground.
This is a humanitarian and an economic issue for the nation and the Sunshine State. South Florida and the Tampa Bay area nationally rank first and third, respectively, in their population of Cuban-Americans. Though Diaz-Balart may be willing to sell out his constituents to play political games, wiser heads in Congress should see the pain this would cause ordinary families, and the jobs that would be lost in a state whose jobless rate is already higher than the national average.