House approves easing US restrictions on Cuba travelFebruary 26th, 2009 - 9:13 am ICT by IANS
Washington, Feb 26 (IANS) The US House of Representatives has approved a $410 billion spending bill that includes a provision easing the restrictions the Bush administration imposed on Cuban-Americans’ travel and remittances to Cuba.
The lawmakers passed the measure by a 245-178 vote that will permit Cuban-Americans to visit their families in the island nation once a year, and not once every three years as current rules stipulate.
“Today, we’ve taken compassionate action, because it corrects a measure that restricted visits and, beside that, it sent a message that Congress supports … a change in the policy toward Cuba,” New York Democrat Jose Serrano, who chairs a House budget subcommittee, told EFE Wednesday.
The law also broadens the definition of close relatives to include uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces.
If passed by the Senate, the provision would reverse the restrictions imposed in June 2004 by the George W. Bush administration as a pressure tactic to encourage democratic change in Cuba.
It also reverses the regulatory obstacles to the sale of medicines and food to Cuba so that the communist government will be able to pay for US products when they arrive on the island and not have to pay in advance, as is the case at present.
“Cuba is the only country that has to pay on account … and it’s ironic if part of our wish is to bring about a change on the island: credit is the essence of capitalism,” Serrano observed.
The measure, which leaves the nearly 47-year-old economic embargo substantially in place, could be slowed down in the Senate by Florida Republican Mel Martinez, a Cuban-American who has already said he will oppose loosening the travel restrictions.
But Serrano suggested that Republican senators would find it difficult to justify holding up the spending bill, which is needed to keep the federal government functioning through September.
The idea of the 2004 travel restrictions was to close the economic cordon around Cuba by limiting the foreign currency revenues that tourism generates on the island.
In a nod to Cuban exiles who supported him in the 2000 elections, Bush reduced the visits Cuban-Americans could pay to the island to just one trip every three years, and that one of only up to 14 days. His administration also imposed a limit on spending there of $50 per day.
Except for a few exceptions and with the required permission of the Treasury Department, the US citizens are prohibited from traveling to Cuba and those who violate the embargo are subject to fines.
Several lawmakers of the Democratic and Republican parties have called for a change in the US foreign policy toward Cuba considering that by relaxing the embargo would help promote democracy in that country.
President Barack Obama had earlier promised to lift the travel and remittance restrictions on Cuban-Americans.