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Don't Book to Havana

The House opposes Bush on Cuba travel, but it probably won't matter--for now.

12:00 AM, Sep 30, 2004 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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ANOTHER CONGRESSIONAL CUBA DEBATE. Another mini-breach among House Republicans. It's nothing new, but the latest flare-up comes at an inopportune moment for George W. Bush.

Since the Soviet Union's demise, GOP policymakers have split over the best way to undermine Fidel Castro and promote civil society in Cuba. There are two schools of thought: the hard-line strategy and the free-trade strategy. The former holds that sanctions will gradually weaken the Cuban dictatorship and increase U.S. leverage during a post-Castro transition. The latter argues that market mechanisms offer the best hope for liberalizing Cuba's economic and political structure.

This intra-party schism was on display last week, when House members voted to block enforcement of the Bush administration's new restrictions on family travel to Cuba. Their vehicle was a $90 billion Transportation and Treasury Department spending bill. The relevant amendment, sponsored by Florida Democrat Jim Davis, passed 225-174.

Bush's new policy, which took effect on June 30, has four salient components. First, it requires a specific license for family visits to Cuba, as opposed to a general license. Second, it defines "family" as exclusively immediate family (no uncles, aunts, or cousins). Third, it allows only one family trip to the island every three years, down from one per year, for a maximum of 14 days. Fourth, it reduces the daily sum of money--from $167 to $50--American visitors may spend in Cuba.

Some 39 House Republicans supported the Davis amendment to nullify these measures. "This is not a debate about tourism," Rep. Davis said. "This is not a debate about trade or the embargo. This is a debate about the right of family members to visit each other without government interference."

But on Cuba policy, trade and travel are indissolubly linked. As Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American from Miami, points out, "90 percent of the embargo is the travel ban." Most, if not all, GOP congressmen who oppose Bush's new Cuba regulations also oppose the broader U.S. travel ban. The leading anti-travel ban House Republican is Arizona's Jeff Flake.

From 2001-2003, Flake sponsored annual amendments to effectively legalize American travel to Cuba. Each time his legislation passed: by votes of 240-186, 262-167, and 227-188, respectively. But facing the threat of a White House veto, it never got out of conference. This year, Flake chose not to introduce his amendment. He cites the proximity of the election and the need for GOP unity.

That said, Flake is a harsh critic of the travel ban in general and Bush's tightening of it in particular. He says he was "begging" the White House not to impose the new policy for a year. "There's no way we can sustain the ban on Cuban-Americans traveling," Flake argues. Moreover, it "is not a conservative policy." He says the number of anti-embargo, anti-travel ban House Republicans "seems to increase every year."

Not true, insists Mario Diaz-Balart. He points out that the number of GOP backers for Flake's amendment declined between 2002 and 2003. (In 2002, 73 House Republicans supported it; last year, only 53 did.) Flake's office attributes the drop to a change in House membership. But Diaz-Balart claims Flake "doesn't have the votes" for lifting the travel ban anymore. That only 39 Republicans would endorse the much milder Davis amendment, Diaz-Balart says, is proof that the GOP's pro-travel ban ranks have swelled.

Flake has an answer to that. "This is not a normal year," he explains, due to the election. "A number" of Republicans, Flake says, told him they would normally have voted against restricting Cuba travel--"but not this year."

For the time being, this may all be moot. George W. Bush has pledged to veto any legislation that weakens U.S. sanctions against Cuba. John Kerry, however, has rebuked Bush's new policy and called for "principled travel" to the island.

Should Kerry win in November, he would be more amenable to a softening--or perhaps even an outright lifting--of the travel ban. A pro-embargo consensus endures, as shown by the House's 225-188 rejection last week of a proposal to end U.S. economic sanctions. But pro-travel ban members are fighting an uphill battle. Over the long term, it will be up to principled anti-Communists like Diaz-Balart (and his brother Lincoln, also a Miami congressman) to argue for the ban's continuing necessity.

Duncan Currie is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.