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Senators Call for End to Cuba Travel Restrictions

American citizens will soon be able to hop on a direct flight to Havana if Congress passes a bill proposed Tuesday. 

Through the measure, a bipartisan group of 20 senators is calling for an end to the 47-year-old ban on travel to Cuba.

"This is a failed policy that has failed for 50 years and it long past the time to change the policy," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.  "Punishing the American people in our effort to somehow deal a blow to the Castro government has not made any sense at all."

Advocates of the proposal cast it as an attempt to weaken the Cuban regime that will "make a difference for democracy."

"The best antidote to totalitarianism is the American citizen traveling, the ability to actually communicate with other people," said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who joined Dorgan and Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., at a press conference Tuesday announcing the proposal. "The one thing that totalitarianism can't stand is light, is communication, is information."

"It undermines the communist regime to have other voices joining the Cuban people," Dorgan noted.

The U.S. established the travel ban along with a number of other restrictions, including a trade embargo, in 1962 soon after Fidel Castro's takeover of Cuba. His brother Raul now rules the island nation, located 90 miles from the Florida coastline.

But critics of the proposal, including Cuban-born Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., assert that any U.S. tourism dollars will only go to bolster the Castro regime.

"This is the time to support pro-democracy activists in Cuba, not provide the Castro regime with a resource windfall. Changing travel restrictions for U.S. citizens will simply allow Americans to contribute to the resources available to the Castro regime to perpetuate its repression," Martinez said in a statement. "My fellow senators should be standing in solidarity and showing support for the 11 million Cubans who are suffering under the Cuban regime, instead of making it easier for Americans to vacation in Cuba."

Sen Bob Menendez, D-N.J., one of the most anti-Castro voices in Congress, successfully led a coalition opposing a similar amendment to the 2009 omnibus spending bill last month. He called the lifting of the travel ban "deeply offensive" and threatened to vote against the entire spending bill, which funded the government through October.

And while bill sponsors maintained Tuesday that they are not seeking any changes to trade policy, Martinez and other critics fear that loosening trade restrictions will be the next logical step as a number of interest groups are looking to open up the Cuban market to U.S. goods.

However, outside groups like U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Human Rights Watch, which joined bill proponents at Tuesday's press conference, argue that the half-century old policies have made life more difficult for the Cuban people without any measurable benefits.

"The U.S. policy toward Cuba has neither weakened the Cuban government nor improved the situation of human rights in the country. On the contrary, it has helped consolidate the Castro regime's hold on power by providing the government an excuse for its problem and justification for its abuses," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch.

Bill proponents have not set a date for the Senate to take up the legislation but were confident that they have the necessary votes to move forward with the bill.

"I think that we have finally reached a new watermark here on this issue. I think there is sufficient votes," Dorgan said, noting that while the White House has yet to endorse the measure, President Obama sent signals during last year's campaign that he was open to loosening restrictions on Cuba.