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Support to Lift Cuba Travel Restrictions Appears to Be Growing in US Congress - 2003-10-10

Support for ending U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba appears to be growing in the U.S. Congress, despite President Bush's vow Friday to tighten enforcement of them.

A number of lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans alike, are calling for abolishing restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba. They argue that more contacts between American and Cuban citizens will help spur democratic change in the Communist-ruled island nation.

Last month, the House of Representatives passed legislation aimed at easing the travel restrictions, by denying the Bush administration the funds to enforce them.

The U.S. Senate in the coming weeks is to take up a similar bill, despite the threat of a presidential veto.

Senator Michael Enzi, a Wyoming Republican, says he is ready to support the measure. "The greatest resource we have for change and for promoting change in other countries is for our people to travel there," he said.

Senator Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, agrees. "I support engagement with Cuba, because I think it is the best way to effect democratic change in Cuba," he said.

Senator Baucus, who visited Cuba last month, argues the travel restrictions play into the hands of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Speaking at a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Senator Baucus, who is not a member of the panel, said there are indications that the arrest and imprisonment of 75 Cuban dissidents last March was prompted by the Cuban government's fears about contacts between dissidents and Americans. The Senator said "if the Cuban government fears contact between the American and Cuban people, the answer is to send more Americans, not fewer."

But opponents of easing the four-decades-old travel embargo say changing U.S. policy now would amount to rewarding Fidel Castro's government for the crackdown on the dissidents.

One such opponent is Senator Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican who also traveled to Cuba last month. He is especially disturbed about the plight of dissidents, who have endured decades of imprisonment. "Those people are still sitting there for 20, 25 years. It would not be conscionable to support getting rid of the travel ban right now," he said.

Current law does allow some travel to Cuba by Americans, particularly scholars and journalists. The Bush administration says about 200-thousand Americans visit Cuba legally each year.

But tens-of-thousands of Americans, estimated by some news reports, visit Cuba in violation of the travel ban each year. The initiative announced by Mr. Bush Friday would crack down on such illegal travel.

The administration says it is opposed to any effort to increase American tourism to Cuba.

Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently that Cuba's military would benefit from an easing of U.S. travel restrictions. He said the Cuban military controls 65 percent of Cuba's hotel rooms, and would use the proceeds to suppress dissent. He said a majority of Cuba's tourist hotels are in isolated enclaves, where ordinary Cubans are not authorized to go.

"Tourism travel raises grave doubts, because it is funneling resources directly to the repressive apparatus of the state, and the impact on the Cuban people themselves, and the interaction with the Cuban people, is actually fairly minimal," he said.

Many in the Cuban-American community in Florida have long pressed the Bush administration to take a tougher approach to the government in Havana. Florida could be a crucial state for Mr. Bush's re-election bid next year.