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Congress Could Ease US Travel Restrictions to Cuba - 2001-08-17

The U.S. Treasury Department, which recently stepped up enforcement of the ban on travel to Cuba, is now being urged to pull back. Congress may vote to ease the restrictions as soon as next month.

The ban on visiting the island has been on the books for years, to limit the flow of tourist money to President Fidel Castro's government. But the number of people charged with violating the law has recently risen sharply.

In the three months from May through July the Treasury Department sent letters to 443 Americans suspected of traveling to Cuba illegally. That compares to just 74 such letters in the previous four months. Those who can not prove their innocence can be fined up to $55,000, though lawyers say the average penalty is about $7,500.

The move has angered members of Congress, who would ease rather than tighten the 40-year economic embargo on Cuba. Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan has urged Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill to call off the enforcement, which he says makes no sense. "This new enforcement action is apparently an attempt to take a swing at Fidel Castro," he said. "All it really does is hit American citizens with fines that are horribly inappropriate for defying a travel ban that has largely been unaggressively enforced in recent years."

The Treasury Department says the surge of letters is part of an effort to clear a backlog, which began in the Clinton administration. But President Bush says he intends to strengthen the economic blockade even more which, at least on the travel issue, puts him at odds with many in Congress.

The House of Representatives, which the president's party controls, voted last month to stop the Treasury from enforcing the ban. Mr. Dorgan says he will propose to lift the restrictions outright when the Democratic-led Senate reconvenes next month.

But Cuban-American lawmakers and their allies in the House leadership have stopped such ideas several times in the past few years. Mr. Bush, who is actively courting the Cuban-American community, could veto any attempt to open up travel.