WASHINGTON – Congress is taking steps to open Cuba to American travelers, a move that goes against both White House efforts to enforce the travel ban and the four-decade-old U.S. policy of isolating the communist country.
"Today's vote is a clear and undeniable sign that the end is near for the Cuba travel ban," said Sen. Max Baucus (search), D-Mont., after a 59-36 Senate vote Thursday to bar the use of government money to enforce current travel restrictions.
The House last month also voted to ease travel restrictions as part of its version of a $90 billion bill to fund Transportation and Treasury department programs in the budget year that started Oct. 1.
The White House, which recently moved to step up enforcement of the travel ban, has threatened a presidential veto of the spending bill — which contains money for highway, law enforcement and anti-terrorism programs — if it contains the Cuba language.
House and Senate leaders must still meet to iron out differences between their two bills, and in the past have used this opportunity to strip out provisions included by either chamber to ease Cuba sanctions.
This year they will be under conflicting pressures from the White House, eager to maintain support among anti-Castro Cuban-Americans in Florida, and a growing number of free trade Republicans disenchanted with the Cuban embargo. Nineteen Senate Republicans joined nine Democrats and one independent in the vote to ease travel restrictions.
"It's really hard for the president to make this his first veto" since assuming the presidency, said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., a chief sponsor of the travel amendment. In neither the Senate nor House did the Cuba vote reach the two-thirds margin needed to overturn a presidential veto.
"After 40 years of trade and travel sanctions, Fidel Castro (search) is still as brutal and undemocratic as ever," said Rep. Jeff Flake (search), a House leader in the drive to open Cuba. "At some point we need to concede that our current policy is a failure. Let's try a new approach."
But the Homeland Security Department announced this month that it was stepping up embargo enforcements, using "intelligence and investigative resources to identify travelers or businesses engaged in activities that circumvent the embargo."
The Treasury Department estimates that about 160,000 Americans, half of them Cuban-Americans visiting family members, traveled to Cuba legally last year. Humanitarian and educational groups, journalists and diplomats also are allowed visits, but thousands of other Americans visit illegally, by way of third countries.
Tourism officials have estimated that as many as 1 million Americans might visit Cuba in the first year after the lifting of the embargo.
President Kennedy imposed the travel ban in 1963, a year after the Cuban missile crisis. President Carter let it lapse in 1977, but it was reimposed by President Reagan in 1982. Violators could face criminal penalties of up to $250,000 and 10 years in prison.