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US House Debates Cuban Policy - 2002-07-24

The U.S. House of Representatives held a marathon debate Tuesday over U.S. policy toward Cuba. House lawmakers approved an amendment to lift the ban on American citizen travel to Cuba, after a lengthy debate over how the United States should best encourage reform in the island nation.

The debate was between proponents of easing the economic embargo on Cuba and lawmakers who want the United States to maintain the tough line President Bush has taken toward President Fidel Castro.

Congressman Jeff Flake of Arizona was the key sponsor of amendments to lift the travel ban and increase the amount of money Cuban-Americans can send to relatives there. "Fidel Castro is a thug. We have said it again and again and again," he said. "What this debate is about is the best way to topple him, to make sure he doesn't remain there longer than the 42 years he has been in power."

The House approved (262-167) Mr. Flake's amendment to lift the ban on travel. But it rejected (247-182) an amendment by Republican Congressman Porter Goss, who sought to impose tough conditions before Americans could travel to Cuba. "The amendment specifically asks the president to certify that Cuba is not developing biological weapons and that is not providing technology, shelter or assistance to terrorists."

Opponents had accused Mr. Goss of trying to use the war on terrorism as an excuse to block movement in relations with Cuba. "I am disappointed that he would offer this amendment, which further restricts the ability of U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba," said Congressman James McGovern of Massachusetts. "And, let's be clear. That is the only thing the Goss Amendment would do, keep Americans from traveling to Cuba. If members are seriously alarmed about bio-weapons being developed or exported by Cuba, then serious action is required, not this."

California Democrat Maxine Waters characterized the entire debate on Cuba this way. "It's time to lift the embargo, it's time to stop the blockade. The Castro haters took this floor tonight to talk about limiting travel. But members of Congress go to Cuba whenever they want to go," she said. "People are going to Cuba from all over America. Jimmy Carter was there. The Pope was there. Legislators go there. Let the other American people go who want to go."

Congressional opponents of easing sanctions point out President Bush has vowed to veto any legislation containing language supporting a change in U.S. policy.

The Cuba amendments were attached to an unrelated but important $18 billion spending bill authorizing funds for U.S. government agencies.

An appropriations bill passed by the Senate also contains language to lift the ban on travel to Cuba.

Also Tuesday, he House approved another amendment to ease financing and licensing restrictions on private commercial sales of food and medicine to Cuba.