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US House Defeats Bid to Ease Cuba Sanctions

The U.S. House of Representatives has voted against easing trade and travel restrictions on Cuba.

Lawmakers voted 250 to 169 Thursday against an effort to end a U.S. economic embargo that has been in place against Cuba for more than 40 years.

Additionally, the chamber voted 211 to 208 against an amendment that would have allowed Cuban-Americans to visit their families on the island more often.

President Bush has said the U.S. embargo will remain in place until the government of Cuban leader Fidel Castro holds free and fair elections, allows private enterprise and releases political prisoners.

The U.S. embargo was the subject of intense debate in the House Thursday. Proponents of loosening trade and other restrictions on Cuba argued with opponents who said doing so would send the wrong message to Cuban President Fidel Castro.

House lawmakers who have pushed for many years to break congressional resistance to ending the embargo on Cuba tried again during consideration of legislation to fund transportation and other government programs.

No fewer than 10 separate Cuba-related amendments were offered, including attempts to end the embargo in general, along with others relating to the law against U.S. citizens traveling to the island nation.

Congressman Charles Rangel is a New York Democrat and key supporter of ending the embargo. He says prolonging it only hurts American businesses, and ultimately helps Fidel Castro justify his hold on power:

"It has cost us by allowing Castro to tell the people in Cuba that every economic crisis that they have is based on the U.S. embargo," he said.

Arguing against this was Florida Republican Lincoln Diaz-Balart.

"This is a normalization of relations amendment, that would reward the most brutal conduct by the only dictatorship in the western hemisphere," he said.

Congressman Diaz-Balart and others also argued against another amendment submitted by Arizona Republican Jeff Flake who proposed easing restrictions on U.S. citizen travel to Cuba for religious purposes.

"Every effort by those who oppose the freedom to travel to Cuba has been to restrict people's freedoms, and rights, and religion," he said.

That brought this response from another Florida Republican, Congresswoman Ilena Ros-Lehtinen, who linked the travel issue with human rights in Cuba.

"Proponents of this amendment and others seeking to revoke U.S. policy toward the Castro dictatorship argue that they are doing it to help the Cuban people, but when we speak of helping the Cuban people we need to focus on the freedom of the Cuban people," he said.

Under U.S. law, travel to Cuba requires a special license and must be done under the auspices of legitimate religious or educational institutions, or for some other purpose. It also allows for the sale of certain items, including medicine and medical supplies.

The House of Representatives, along with the Senate, have voted in the past to lift the ban on travel to Cuba but the legislation has never become law.

President Bush has moved during his administration to tighten controls on Cuba, including such things as travel, remittances, and family visits by Cuban-Americans.