Campo-Flores, Arian, Newsweek
Byline: Arian Campo-Flores
After 50 years, the U.S. travel ban on Cuba has not made the island any more free. But those Americans pressing to lift it are now closer to success than ever before.
Nobody would accuse Guillermo Farinas of being soft on the Cuban government. The psychologist and dissident journalist has staged nearly two dozen hunger strikes to protest state repression. His belly is peppered with needle pricks from all the forced feedings. One stretch without food caused a lung to fill with blood and plunged him into a coma. During his most recent hunger strike--begun in February to press for the release of 25 ailing political prisoners--he nearly died when a blood clot formed in his jugular vein. He resumed eating only after President Raol Castro announced in early July that he was freeing 52 dissidents, including the 25 sick ones. And yet, in a recent interview with Spain's El Pais, Farinas called for something considered heresy in some anti-Castro circles: lifting the U.S. travel ban on the island. "The visits of millions of U.S. citizens would without doubt change this country," he said.
The anti-Castro lobby remains strong in the United States, and wants to keep Cuba isolated. Until now, it's been able to defeat virtually every effort to open the island to American tourists. But Farinas is one of a growing number of influential Cubans and Americans who see the 50-year policy to completely isolate Cuba as a failure. Now interest groups of all sorts--big business, farmers, human-rights advocates, religious organizations, even many Cuban-Americans--have united to back a new congressional bill that would lift the travel ban and further loosen restrictions on U.S. agricultural sales to the island. "There is significant momentum building," says Carlos Saladrigas, co-chair of the Cuba Study Group, which supports the measure.
Hardline Cuban-Americans will try to defeat the bill by pressuring key legislators. But by combining travel and food provisions in one bill, drafters won over numerous farm-state lawmakers whose constituents are eager to sell to Cuba. The bill passed the House Agriculture Committee at the end of June. Next, it could go either to the Foreign Affairs Committee (whose chairman supports it) or to the House floor for a vote. "They're within striking distance of winning," says Geoff Thale, program director of the Washington Office on Latin America.
If the bill succeeds in the House, attention would turn to the Senate, where Cuban-American Sen. Robert Menendez has vowed a filibuster. Last month, however, Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan and Republican Sen. Mike Enzi--sponsors of their chamber's version of the legislation--issued a statement saying they were confident they had enough votes to get it through.
The American business and agriculture lobbies, which have long supported more trade with Cuba, feel they have a potential ally in President Obama, who early in his term lifted travel and remittance restrictions on Cuban-Americans. Now the lobbyists are cranking up pressure on Congress. Faced with the threat of a double-dip recession, American producers are desperate to tap new markets. A number of pro-business organizations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Foreign Trade Council, have declared this a "key vote"--one they'll take into account when compiling their annual scorecards of lawmakers. …