House passes bill to weaken Cuba ban

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WASHINGTON -- The House, by a vote of 232-186, approved a bill that would open more travel to Cuba by preventing the funding for imposing the existing travel ban to the Caribbean country.

The bill, which passed on July 21, reflects language from legislation sponsored by Rep. Marshall Sanford (R-S.C.), a member of the International Relations Committee.

"This is the first time that a vote like this has happened in 40 years," Sanford told Travel Weekly in a telephone interview. "It was a long time coming. The bottom line is the House has voted for the beginning of change in our policy towards Cuba."

Sanford has been critical of the four-decades-old U.S. embargo against Cuba. He contends the embargo has done more to bolster, rather than hinder, Cuban President Fidel Castro's hold on the island.

Sanford also considers the Cuban embargo inconsistent with U.S. foreign policy, which has fostered relations with other communist countries such as the former Soviet Union, Vietnam and China.

Others in the House share Sanford's view. During debate on the House floor, Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.) said "what is clear is that the present policy towards Cuba has failed. What completely leaves us incapable of understanding is why we would ban American travel. Are we fearful that Americans would somehow be beguiled by Castro's political system and they would go over?"

Gejdenson argued the U.S. embargo against Cuba "has only isolated America."

But Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), a vocal opponent of easing the embargo, warned the free flow of U.S. tourism to Cuba only would bolster Castro's regime.

"[Tourism] would constitute the most significant hard currency generator for the Cuban dictatorship that we could pass in this Congress."

The economic boost provided by tourism would ultimately "contribute more than any other measure to the oppression by the repressive machinery of the Cuban people by the dictatorship," Diaz-Balart said before the bill was passed.

A similar legislation is pending in the Senate sponsored by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Sanford believes chances are good that the Senate will follow the House and ease the embargo on Cuba.

"Historically, the House has been the showstopper," Sanford said. "The Senate has been ahead of the House" on relaxing or eliminating the embargo against Cuba.

If the Senate approves its version of the bill, it would still have to be reconciled with the House version before going to a vote before the full Congress.

Currently, U.S. citizens are only allowed to fly directly to Cuba out of New York, Los Angeles and Miami, and only with special government permission.

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