A bipartisan group of senators has introduced a bill to lift the decades old U.S. ban on travel to Cuba. With a new president in the White House, the senators say they sense a new momentum in Congress to allow all Americans to travel to Cuba as a first step toward breaking down economic and trade barriers between the two nations.
Cuba has been forbidden territory for most Americans for almost five decades.
But lawmakers from both parties, joined by trade and human rights groups, held a news conference Tuesday to unveil legislation that would lift the travel ban.
Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan says the restrictions are part of a long-standing U.S. policy that has failed to promote change in the communist country. "This issue today with respect to the travel restrictions is a failed policy that has failed for 50 years. And it is long past the time to change the policy," Senator Dorgan said.
He went on to point to examples of Americans who have been punished by the U.S. government for traveling to Cuba, including one woman who went there to pass out Bibles.
"Punishing the American people in our effort to somehow deal a blow to the Castro government has not made any sense at all," he said.
The United States broke off diplomatic ties with Havana in 1961 and imposed an economic embargo, after Fidel Castro turned his revolution toward communism and aligned his country with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Last year, the ailing Mr. Castro formally handed over power to his brother Raul, but human rights activists say the situation in Cuba has not improved.
This is why Cuban-American lawmakers, such as Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, strongly oppose any easing of the embargo, arguing that revenue from tourism and trade only strengthens the Castro government.
But others, such as Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd, disagree."And our experience has been, the one thing that totalitarianism can't stand is light, is information, is communication. That is what travel offers," Senator Dodd asserted. "That opening up of doors, creating the light."
President Obama has repeatedly called for a "new strategy" on Cuba, and lifted restrictions this month on travel and remittances to the island by Cuban Americans with relatives there.
Senator Dorgan and his colleagues say they hope they can move the bill to the Senate floor and to the president's desk for signature later this year.