A bipartisan group of senators unveiled a bill Thursday that would end all travel restrictions for Americans who want to visit Cuba.
The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015 also would allow travel-related banking transactions.
“We all need to remember this is a prohibition on Americans, not Cubans,” the bill’s Republican sponsor, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, said at a news conference Thursday. “We’re simply saying that Americans should be allowed to travel wherever they want unless there’s a compelling national security reason.”
The prohibition on travel to Cuba makes no sense, agreed Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, one of the bill’s four Democratic co-sponsors. Four Republicans, including Flake, also signed on to support the bill.
“It’s one thing if another country tells me I can’t visit them; it’s another if my country tells me I can’t,” Leahy said Thursday. “This thing hasn’t worked.”
Advocates of the bill see lifting the travel ban as a first step toward repealing the embargo on trade with Cuba, which was imposed by the Kennedy administration more than 50 years ago and later codified by Congress.
The push in Congress to open Cuba to increased travel and trade comes a month after President Barack Obama announced that he’d move to normalize relations with the Communist state.
As of Jan. 16, new rules implemented by the Obama administration expand the leeway for travelers, but general tourism still isn’t allowed. Americans must fall into 12 categories of authorized travel, such as professional research, religious activities, athletic competitions and humanitarian projects.
The bill filed in the Senate on Thursday would eliminate all remaining restrictions on U.S. travelers. An identical bill will be introduced next week in the House of Representatives. The White House supports the measure, pointing to Obama's call at his State of the Union address last week for Congress to begin working to end the embargo this year.
At Thursday’s news conference, Leahy shared an anecdote from his own visit to Cuba in recent days to illustrate how Obama’s announcement already has made an impact: He said he and his wife had been walking down the street in Havana when a Cuban man poked his head out of a shop and asked whether the pair were Americans. When they answered yes, the man pointed to an American flag in his window.
“We’d never seen that before – it was wonderful,” said Leahy, who compared Cuba to East Germany after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
His colleague, Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, said the hope of the bill’s co-sponsors was that U.S. tourists would take not only money to spend in Cuba but also American ideals.
“The way you change society is through personal relationships,” Durbin said, “and lifting the travel ban is a tremendous step in the right direction.”
Despite the Republican co-sponsors, the bill won’t be an easy sell in a Republican-controlled Congress. Obama’s unilateral action to ease relations with Cuba was criticized by many Republican lawmakers, who say it lacks sufficient concessions from the Cuban government.
Lawmakers who oppose further engagement with Cuba were quick to denounce the legislation.
“Lifting the tourism ban would infuse the Castro dictatorship with billions of dollars, which it would use to more aggressively oppose U.S. interests in our hemisphere and to further repress the Cuban people,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla.
“There is a strong sense in the House,” Curbelo said, “that the Obama administration’s Cuba policy shift is yet another foreign-policy blunder with which most members do not want to be associated.”