WASHINGTON, DC May 27, 2017 (CMC) – As the Donald J. Trump administration’s Cuba policy review reaches its final stage, politicians, companies and organizations that support the policy of engagement, are making an extra effort to send a clear message to the US president not to eliminate opportunities to travel to the Spanish-speaking Caribbean island, according to reports here.
US Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) have reintroduced a bill to eliminate all prohibitions on travel to Cuba, reported the Miami Herald, yesterday.
The bill, which had only eight cosponsors when first filed in 2015, now has the support of 55 senators from both parties.
“As the administration is finalizing its Cuba policy review, it is important to show that a bipartisan majority in the Senate supports, not only not rolling back the measures that President Obama took to expand travel, but to go even further and remove all restrictions,” James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, told the Herald.
Engage Cuba is a coalition of companies and organizations that lobby to eliminate sanctions on Cuba.
The bill would remove all restrictions for US citizens and residents on travel to Cuba, and will authorize associated banking transactions made by travelers. A similar proposal was presented in the US House of Representatives, but with fewer sponsors.
Even if the bill is not discussed on the Senate floor, said Williams, it sends a strong message to the White House that there is support for the current policy of engagement.
In a separate move to push the agenda forward, the Herald said another piece of legislation was introduced, on Friday, to lift the trade embargo against Cuba.
It said the Freedom to Export to Cuba Act of 2017 was introduced by Senators Leahy, Flake, Amy Klobuchar and Mike Enzi .
“This bipartisan legislation would benefit the people of both our countries, by boosting American exports and creating opportunity for the Cuban people,” Klobuchar said.
“We need to turn the page on the failed policy of isolation and build on the progress we have made, to open up engagement with Cuba, by ending the embargo once and for all.”
On travel to the island, the Herald noted that former US President Barack Obama expanded to 12 the number of authorized categories under which travelers may visit Cuba. However, the removal of all travel restrictions requires an act of Congress.
As a result of Obama’s measures, the number of Americans who traveled to the island soared and Cuban authorities reported 118 percent growth through March, compared to the same period last year. In 2016, more than 280,000 Americans traveled to the island, but those who support the current policies fear that travel to Cuba may be in jeopardy.
Although the review of the Cuba policy is being carried out by different federal agencies and coordinated by the National Security Council, Cuban-American lawmakers, US Senator Marco Rubio and Congressman Mario Díaz-Balart — who favor the elimination of what they see as concessions to the Cuban government — are playing a significant role in the process, according to the Herald.
“Recognizing the inherent right of Americans to travel to Cuba isn’t a concession to dictators, it is an expression of freedom. It is Americans who are penalized by our travel ban, not the Cuban government,” said Flake.
“Lifting the ban on US citizens traveling to Cuba can pave the way to meaningful change, by increasing contact between Cubans and everyday Americans, and it is certain to have positive benefits for the island’s burgeoning entrepreneurial and private sector,” he added.
In a statement in support of the bill, the Cuban Study Group, a Cuban-American non-profit organization that backed Obama’s changes, stressed that the elimination of the restrictions would have a “substantial” effect on the lives of Cubans, especially those who have joined the private sector, according to the Herald.
“Instead of being forced to use the government as an intermediary, hundreds of thousands of Cubans who work in independent restaurants, bed and breakfasts, and a wide range of other service professions would have direct access to US currency,” the group said.
Some 40 companies and associations organizing trips to Cuba also sent a letter to Trump asking him to prioritize economic “growth and job creation” in the policy review, the Herald noted.
The letter signers, including former charter flight companies, as well as the American Society of Travel Agents, the National Tour Association and the United States Tour Operators Association, say the increase in US visitors to Cuba has allowed them to “hire more American employees,” in a nod to Trump’s America First theme, according to the Herald.
“US travelers are the best representatives of American beliefs, ideas and values,” said Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, who coordinated the letter. “The Trump administration should put US companies and travelers in a position to compete with Chinese, Russian and Venezuelan influence on the island.”
Online travel company, Expedia, has now entered the Cuban market, allowing hotels on the Spanish-speaking Caribbean island to post on all of its website.
“We’ve been working, around the clock, with Cuban hoteliers to offer this iconic, culture-rich destination to our global consumers, with the added convenience of online booking, through a trusted travel partner,” said Demetrius Canton, Expedia’s Director of market management for the Caribbean, in a statement to the Spanish news agency, EFE.
Expedia joins other large U.S. tourism companies, like Starwood, despite uncertainties about the future of relations between the two countries.
According to the statement, Expedia hopes to help Cuba and seeks to benefit local hotels with its tools, technology and experience.
“We are excited to make Barceló properties in Cuba accessible to travelers on Expedia platforms around the world,” said Josep Brich, a top executive of the Spanish hotel group Barceló.
In 2016, the island registered a record number of 4 million foreign visitors, and in 2017 it expects to attract 4.2 million tourists.
Since the start of 2017, the island has welcomed two million tourists.