WASHINGTON – Courting a presidential veto, the House on Tuesday night moved to lift restrictions on travel to Cuba that have been in place for more than four decades. The House also voted to remove hurdles on the sale of food and medicine to Cuba and lift the caps on money that Cuban-Americans can send back to relatives in Cuba.
On a 262-167 vote, lawmakers approved a measure to end government obstacles to American tourists visiting Cuba. "This is all about freedom," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., sponsor of the amendment. "Our government shouldn't tell us where to travel and where not to travel."
The vote on the Flake provision came after the House rejected, 247-182, a measure that would have set tough conditions — including proof that Cuba was not developing a biological weapons — before American tourists could travel to Cuba.
The House also passed the Flake language last year, but it was never taken up by the Senate.
"Americans can travel to North Korea and Iran, two-thirds of the axis of evil, but not to Cuba," said Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass. "That makes no sense, I would suggest."
The Cuba debate dominated action on an $18.5 billion spending bill to fund programs for the Treasury Department, the White House and other agencies in fiscal year 2003. Another amendment by Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., removed hurdles to the sale of food and medicine to Cuba.
And a second Flake measure removed the limit, now $1,200 a year, on what Cuban-Americans can send to their families in Cuba. That passed 251-177.
The most far-reaching attempt to reverse the decades-old policy of isolating Castro's Cuba, an amendment by Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., to end the economic embargo, was defeated, but by a narrow 226-204.
Rangel, a strong proponent of lifting sanctions on Cuba, said politics in Florida, where President Bush's brother Jeb is governor, is a big reason the United States continues to isolate Cuba. "Don't allow your local politics to influence what's in our national interest," he said.
The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved a version of the Treasury spending bill that includes an end to travel restrictions.
The White House, in a statement, said the president would be urged to veto the spending bill if it contains an end to the travel ban. "Lifting the sanctions now would provide a helping hand to a desperate and repressive regime," it said.
On Monday, Otto Reich, head of the State Department's Western Hemisphere affairs bureau, said American tourism would only give President Fidel Castro greater access to dollars. "When he's had hard currency, he's used it to support terrorist or other anti-American or anti-Western democracy activities," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Supporters of the White House policy sought to head off the Flake amendment with a proposal, introduced by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss, R-Fla., that would have allowed an easing of travel restrictions only after the president certifies that Cuba is not developing biological weapons, is not providing terrorist states with technology to develop biological weapons and is not supporting or harboring international terrorists.
"The Castro dictatorship, a totalitarian regime long known to be a safe haven for terrorists and a nerve center for international espionage, is a continuing and growing threat to our national security that we cannot afford to underestimate," said Cuba-born Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.
But Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., said the Goss amendment "trivializes the war on terrorism" and was meant only to "thwart the overwhelming will" of Congress to lift the restrictions.
The Treasury bill focuses on law enforcement and anti-terrorism programs, increasing funds for the Customs Service to tighten border controls. It also includes a 4.1 percent cost-of-living raise for civilian federal workers. Last week, on a procedural vote to the Treasury bill, the House also opened the way for a 3.3 percent pay raise for members of Congress to kick in.