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US Senate Approves Easing Travel Restrictions to Cuba - 2003-10-23

Defying a veto threat from President Bush, the Republican-led Senate joined the House of Representatives in approving a measure aimed at easing restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba.

The Senate voted to bar the use of government money to enforce travel restrictions to Cuba.

"It is not constructive at all to try to slap around Fidel Castro by imposing limits on Americans' right to travel," said Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, who is a key sponsor of the measure.

Supporters argue that more contacts between American and Cuban citizens will help spur democratic change in the Communist-ruled island nation.

The legislation was contained in an amendment to the Transportation and Treasury Department bill. A similar measure was approved by the House last month.

Once the Senate votes on the overall bill, differences will have to be reconciled with the House version, before a final bill is sent to President Bush.

But Mr. Bush has signaled he would veto the legislation, if it contains the Cuba language.

Reflecting administration concerns, Senator Ted Stevens, the Republican chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said changing U.S. policy now would amount to rewarding Fidel Castro's government for its recent crackdown on dissidents.

"It is essential to maintain sanctions and travel restrictions, to deny economic resources to the brutal Castro regime," he said.

Current law allows some travel to Cuba by Americans, particularly scholars and journalists. The Bush administration estimates as many as 200,000 Americans visit Cuba legally each year. But thousands of other Americans travel there illegally, by way of third countries, risking thousands of dollars in fines and imprisonment.

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.