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US Congress Takes Small Step Toward Cuba Policy Reform


Congress has agreed to loosen some restrictions on Americans seeking to travel to Cuba to visit family or pursue business deals. In Miami, advocates of reform said it is a small step toward opening debate on changes to U.S. policy toward Cuba.

The provisions regarding Cuba were tucked into a $410 billion spending bill that lawmakers approved late Tuesday.

New York Representative Jose Serrano wrote the Cuba measures, saying they aimed at helping U.S. farmers and Cuban-American families, who he said are hurt by U.S. restrictions.

The new bill will block funding to the Treasury Department to punish Cuban-Americans who travel more than once every three years to visit family members. It also eases the rules on farmers or medical supplies vendors to make sales trips to the Communist island.

Jake Colvin, vice president of the National Foreign Trade Council that advocates lifting sanctions on Cuba, said the changes could help farmers take advantage of growing opportunities in Cuba.

"To put it in perspective, 2008 [farm] sales increased [more than] 60 percent over 2007 sales. So sales have already gone up," he said.

But advocates of easing family travel to Cuba said the bill offers little more than a symbolic victory for them.

Silvia Wilhelm, who left Cuba as a child, has been lobbying to reverse 2004 rules that limit family travel to once every three years. She said the new bill only seeks to block enforcement of the travel rule, not reverse it.

"It is a very convoluted way to say we are free to travel. No, it says we are free to break the law, and that is not necessarily what we want to do," she said.

Wilhelm said the bill's impact will be muted, because companies that charter trips to Cuba are still blocked from selling tickets to people who are not approved to travel.

Supporters of tough U.S. policies against Cuba opposed the changes, in part because they could be seen as helping the Cuban government.

The director of the U.S. Cuba lobbying group in Washington, Mauricio Claver-Carone, said the provisions did not belong in the spending bill.

"Foreign policy reviews, Cuba policy reviews do not belong in appropriations bills. This long drawn-out process really sent the message that this is not the way to do business on these issues," he said.

Both sides agree the bill has set the stage for a new debate in Washington on whether to reform the decades-old embargo against Cuba.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Obama raised the expectations of reform advocates by promising to end the travel limits and seek new ways to engage Cuba. Silvia Wilhelm said she plans to hold the president to his word.

"I still maintain the hope that President Obama will do what he promised. And if he does not it will be a major disappointment in the Cuban-American community," she said.

Wilhelm said she hopes the president moves quickly in the coming weeks to change policy before a summit of American heads of state next month in Trinidad.
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