Senate panel votes to ease Cuba travel.

USA Today

by Bart Jansen

WASHINGTON – A key Senate panel approved several provisions Thursday to ease travel and trade with Cuba, although the provisions must still be reconciled with the House where opposition to Cuba is stronger.

The travel provisions come less than a week after the Transportation Department approved the first scheduled flights to Cuba in more than 50 years, as part of President Obama’s effort to restore ties with the Communist country.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved four amendments to a financial services bill, including one that would lift travel restrictions that require U.S. citizens to declare one of 12 reasons for the travel. Tourism is not technically allowed.

But Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the committee, complained that Cuba is the only place in the world where the U.S. government restricts travel, while allowing travel to North Korea, Iran and Syria.

“One place you can’t go to is 90 miles away: it’s Cuba,” Leahy said. “I’m not claiming great things about the Cuban government, but one thing is clear that the current law enacted 20 years ago hasn’t done a darn thing.”

Leahy said his amendment with Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, “would make it possible for Americans to travel to Cuba without the interference of their own government.”

An amendment from Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, would lift a prohibition against foreign airlines getting fuel or other services in the U.S. if their next destination is Cuba.

For trade, an amendment from Sens. John Boozman, R-Ark., Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Leahy would allow U.S. agricultural exporters to sell to Cubans on credit. The current requirement for cash sales is often prohibitive.

The provision would also eliminate a restriction that required any ship docking in Cuba to remain outside the U.S. for six months, which discouraged shipping.

The fourth amendment from Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Leahy would allow telecommunications exports to Cuba that are now restricted.

The provisions were added to financial-services legislation, which must be approved in some version for the year starting Oct. 1. But senators must still negotiate with the House about whether to include the Cuban provisions in the final version.

The Senate provisions come after the June 10 decision by the Transportation Department to approve six U.S. airlines to begin scheduled flights to nine Cuban cities other than Havana. Under an agreement reached in February, the department is still deciding which airlines will be allowed to fly 20 daily flights to Havana.