CAPITOL HILL —
A bipartisan group of eight U.S. senators has introduced legislation to lift all restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba. While some Cuban American lawmakers strongly oppose the Obama administration’s sudden shift in U.S. policy towards Cuba, others say it is past time to end the more than five-decade-old U.S. embargo against the island country.
Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona is one of the sponsors of a bill that would end the ban on Americans traveling to Cuba. Flake said some critics will say the United States should have tried to get some concessions from the Communist government in Havana before lifting the ban, but he sees it differently.
“We all need to remember that this is a sanction or prohibition on Americans, not Cubans," he said.
Flake said Americans should be able to travel anywhere in the world they please unless there are compelling national security reasons not to do so.
Lawmakers from farming states often support moves that would open up their products to Cuban markets.
Democratic Senator Dick Durbin is from one such state and he strongly backs the push to end the travel ban. Durbin said it may not happen overnight, but he expects the U.S. policy of opening up to Cuba will trigger dramatic changes there.
“Let’s give our people a chance to travel and they will not only bring money to spend; they are going to bring new ideas, new values and real change to Cuba," he said.
On December 17, President Barack Obama announced dramatic changes in U.S. policy towards Cuba, saying that he and Cuban President Raul Castro will work towards normalizing relations between their countries. This sudden shift led to angry reactions from several Cuban American senators and lawmakers in the House of Representatives, including representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who was a political refugee from Cuba.
“Just like a zebra cannot change its stripes, the Castro regime cannot and will not change its anti-freedom terrorist ways," she said. "It is our duty to support democracy and be a voice for those 11 million Cubans oppressed throughout the island."
A similar ban to end travel restrictions will also be introduced in the House, but lawmakers concede that the embargo is not likely to end anytime soon. Hearings on U.S. policy toward Cuba are scheduled to take place in both the House and Senate next week and Congress would have to vote to end the restrictions.
On Wednesday, Cuban President Raul Castro demanded that the U.S. lift its trade embargo and return the Guantanamo Bay military base in Cuba. On Thursday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the United States would not return Guantanamo once the controversial detention center is closed.