WASHINGTON -- The Senate Appropriations Committee approved language Thursday loosening restrictions on travel and trade between the United States and Cuba.
One of the three Cuba-related amendments that was added to an appropriations bill was written by U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., who sits on the committee.
Most travel to and trade with the island nation 90 miles south of Florida has been restricted for decades. Only Congress can lift the current embargoes, and the House and Senate disagree on what, if anything, they should do.
"I've got people that I respect very much that don't feel like this is the right direction," Boozman said after the vote. "My concern is what we've done for 60 years now simply hasn't worked. I believe that the way that you change people is through relationships."
The Senate Appropriations Committee added a Cuba travel amendment, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., to the Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill Thursday by a vote of 18 to 12. Four Republicans joined Democrats in approving it. The other amendments, including the one drafted by Boozman, were approved by voice vote.
Boozman's amendment would repeal a law that prohibits banks and other U.S. businesses from financing sales of U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba.
"We've tried to change the nature, the behavior of the Castro regime. ... After nearly 60 years, we might try something different," Moran said. "From a personal freedom and liberties point of view, I think this makes sense, but just from the strict point of view of the rights of an American to make decisions about travel around the globe, this is in support of those constitutional freedoms that Americans enjoy as citizens of the United States."
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has sponsored similar, stand-alone legislation. He noted that Americans are allowed to visit countries known to sponsor terrorism like North Korea, Iran and Syria but can't visit one of their nearest neighbors.
"We're talking about a country that is half an hour off the coast of Florida," he said. "It just does not make sense."
Late last year, President Barack Obama announced that the United States will ease travel and banking restrictions regarding Cuba and restore full diplomatic relations with the communist country. Earlier this month, Cuban President Raul Castro reopened his country's embassy in Washington for the first time in more than 50 years.
The president's new policy made travel to Cuba easier for researchers, government envoys and those with family members living in Cuba. Although it eased the way for educational, religious or humanitarian trips, federal law still prohibits other travel to the country, including tourism.
Boozman said after the meeting that he's trying every available path to normalize relations with Cuba, including adding language to lift travel and trade embargoes to a bill many members of Congress feel compelled to support. The appropriation bill funds the Treasury, the Internal Revenue Service, the judiciary and several other agencies and was written by the Financial Services and General Government subcommittee, which Boozman leads.
"You have to fund the government, and so, this is one bill that is going to pass," Boozman said. "They have to be passed, they are must-pass bills, and so it's just a good vehicle to stick some of this stuff in."
The House Appropriation Committee has moved to block Obama's new travel rules, to stop money for the U.S. Embassy in Havana and to prevent a reduction of trade restrictions. Some Republican members, including several Cuban-Americans, have accused Obama of trying to appease the Castro regime by opening diplomatic ties and resuming trade and tourism.
"Certainly supporting the Cuban people does not include channeling goods to the oppressive Cuban military and intelligence services, nor does it include facilitating the unlawful use of stolen properties that were illegally confiscated from Americans," U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., said in a recent news release.
Boozman said he thinks that senators will pass the appropriation with the language affecting Cuba, but isn't sure it can clear the other chamber.
"We've still got a big hurdle: The House thinks very differently about these things," Boozman said.
The Arkansas lawmaker's amendment, which had strong backing from the Appropriations Committee, also has supporters in Boozman's home state.
Arkansas Farm Bureau spokesman Steve Eddington said by phone. after the vote, that allowing banks and businesses to offer credit to Cuba would make it easier to sell Arkansas products there.
"The big issue is, we can do some agricultural trade with them now but it has to be cash in advance," Eddington said. "They need some kind of access a to credit line. Short of lifting the embargo, this would probably take the biggest step forward we can do. It is one of the primary barriers in place."
The committee also approved an amendment by U.S. Sen. John Tester, D-Mont., to lift a law that bars ships from loading or unloading freight in the U.S. if they've been in Cuba in the previous 180 days.
Tester said the restriction was put in place in the early 1990s in an attempt to disrupt the Cuban economy; only those with a hard-to-obtain government permit can sidestep the rule.
"After 20 years it really hasn't done all that much except undermine our own [agricultural] producers," Tester said. "Cuba's come a long way; I think we've come a long way."
Leahy said no other country has such a restriction on ships traveling from Cuba and it's hurting American agricultural producers.
"Other agriculture-producing countries are eating our lunch because they don't do that," Leahy said.
Metro on 07/24/2015