Cuba travel ban debate elicits strong feelings

November 19, 2009

No one can remember the last time they had a full House of Representatives committee hearing on whether to lift the U.S. travel ban on Castro’s Cuba.

Perhaps that’s why some strong feelings spilled out into the open.

Florida Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a staunch defender of keeping the decades-old travel ban, told one witness who had advocated lifting it that she found some of his comments “shameful.”

HONDURAS/The witness, retired U.S. General Barry McCaffrey, riposted that he was offended by Ros-Lehtinen’s “marginalization” of his viewpoint, adding that her line of questioning was “silly.”

The hearing Thursday of the House Foreign Affairs committee started out peacefully enough. Chairman Howard Berman said lawmakers should examine why Cuba was “the only country in the world where our people are not allowed to go.”

Most of the witnesses then spoke in favor of changing U.S. policy, which was launched in the 1960s in a Cold War bid to isolate Fidel Castro.

But Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American born in Havana, was clearly determined to resist what proponents say is their best chance in years to lift the ban on travel to Communist Cuba, 90 miles from her state.

She mocked a reference McCaffrey had made to “Communist morality” and rolled her eyes when McCaffrey said he had once spent seven hours with Castro.

“I always find it intriguing that people are so proud of the number of hours that Castro spent with them,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

CUBA/McCaffrey, who once headed the U.S. Southern command coordinating U.S. national security operations in Latin America, was irked that Ros-Lehtinen had not referred to him by the title of general.

He corrected her, and for that he got an apology.

Other lawmakers and witnesses tangled over whether they had done enough to help anti-Castro dissidents while visiting Cuba (under apparent exceptions to the U.S. travel ban.)

They also debated whether, if a flood of American tourists were suddenly allowed to visit Cuba, would they be allowed to meet anyone other than hotel workers, or would they have enough Spanish to spread democracy.

Representative Albio Sires, who was also born in Cuba, pointed out that not everyone was fluent in Spanish who claimed to be. His own brothers’ Spanish was “an embarrassment,” he said.

Republican Representative Jeff Flake said he was offended by a comment from another witness, Ambassador James Cason, that tourists go to Cuba for “rum, sun, cigars, song and sex.”

Cason is a former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and he opposes lifting the travel ban.

One thing that did become clear during the hearing: the 47-member committee is a real battleground for efforts to lift the travel ban.

In opening statements, 15 members spoke against lifting the travel ban and 10 favored lifting it. No action is expected before next year.

Berman, who favors lifting the travel restrictions, called the hearing “a great example of democracy in action.”

“One thing I think the entire committee shares is a desire that one day in Cuba, that kind of peaceful clash of ideas can be expressed in the political system,” he said.

For more Reuters political news, click here.

Photo credit: Reuters/Oswaldo Rivas (Ros-Lehtinen in Honduras in October); Reuters/Enrique de la Osa (Cuba’s Capitol building at sunet Oct. 19)


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Anybody who thinks the US is “a free country” is kidding themselves. We have lots of rules that do not make sense, and this is a perfect example. Because of the personal politics of Ros-Lehtinen and her cohorts I am not allowed to travel where I want to – so much for democracy. I’ve been to countries far more oppressive than Cuba, and they and I are better for it.

Posted by MarkSeattle | Report as abusive

It is the very definition of hypocrisy to practice communism-like practices such as telling people where they may or may not travel in a supposed effort to end communism. If these people who so strongly support the travel ban are so committed to ending communism, then why are they bringing it with them to America when they move here and join our house or senate? If they want to be communists in political positions, why not just stay in Havana rather than coming here? In America, people make their own choices about where they may or may not travel. Even in Cuba, Americans are allowed to rent a car and go anywhere they choose on the entire island. If that is not hypocrisy, nothing is. The new move to allow Cuban-Americans unlimited travel to Cuba, and not the rest of America’s population, while a welcome move in the right direction, is nothing short of racism as it allows Americans of Cuban descent to practice freedoms that other Americans who are not of Cuban descent cannot legally practice. Laws that do not allow all races to have equal freedom are a direct violation of the American constitution and it is nothing short of astounding that such a law was ever passed, and is far more astounding that nobody has yet sued the federal government for discrimination for applying for a travel license to go to Cuba and being denied it based upon not having Cuban descent.

Posted by JMo | Report as abusive

Mark, you can still go to Cuba, just not on a flight originating in the US. It is very easy to get there from the Dominican Republic and you should if you can it’s a great place.

Posted by Eric H | Report as abusive

Using the embargo as a “bargaining chip” to push for democracy in Cuba is like threatening to take away an invisible and non-existent hog trough for the pigs in charge of Cuba. Meanwhile, their real hog trough is being filled each day from of the embargo’s effect: It provides them the perfect excuse for their miserable failures, gives them the perfect “enemy” to justify their police-state, and helps snuff out democratic forces on the island.And the “less equal” animals continue to suffer.How long do we continue in failing to recognize this Truth?John R. BomarCuba sailor, ’96

Posted by John R. Bomar | Report as abusive

People like Ros-Lehtinen flee to this country for freedom from tyranny. What is the first thing these Idiots do? They want laws passed to take away my freedom as an American to travel where I want. Ros-Lehtinen is no better than Castro. Those that agree with and assist her in continuing this mindless hate towards Cuba by denying Americans their freedom is repressive and Un-American. Ros-Lehtinen and her ilk should have stayed in Cuba and fought for the freedom there were generously given here and take for granted.

Posted by max | Report as abusive

take note TC! our friend has been out of America,now we know that he has been to Cuba.I have been to Bermuda not exactly the same politics however,one decidedly capitalist and the other not sure what your take would be on it.Don,t know much about the place other than one former British union leader used holiday there and he was not to big personal freedom just his own!

Posted by brian lee | Report as abusive

The story failed to note that Miriam Leiva, a leading dissident, and Yoani Sanchez, the heroine of the anti-Castro blogosphere, both stated their strong opposition to US travel restrictions.

Posted by John McAuliff | Report as abusive

I am so ready to take my tourist $$$ to Cuba. I’ve lived in FL all my life and so ready to go and see my neighbors.

Posted by Ray | Report as abusive

It was shocking to hear the disrespect of Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen when she confronted a genuine American hero, General Barry McCaffrey. While the spectators were very civil despite a heated debate and representatives present from both sides, Ros-Lehtinen chose to berate this American patriot and her tactics are absolutley similar to what dictatorships employ in the public domain. Her district needs to rethink their support for more than 20 years of this representative.

Posted by John T | Report as abusive

I am tired of hearing what i can and cannot do. Our U.S poiticians are a joke. we cannot even get health care approved without all the hub bub of some potitician getting their panties all bunched up, but as far as traveling…. I have and will still go to Cuba because I feel no one has any right to restrict me from going where I desire.

Posted by mark bowdoin | Report as abusive

I understand everyones opinion, but how many have you have ever been to Cuba? I have been many times. I have friends there. I understand the story there and the government. By lifting the ban on travel, how will that help the Cuban people? Seriously, I ask, how will that help the CUBAN PEOPLE. It will not. You see, everything you buy there, goes to the Government. There is no free enterprise there. Everything is owned by the Government. So, by all means, go to Cuba. Enjoy the sun, the fun, and the wonderful people. But, keep in mind that you are supporting the communist regime every time you buy a beer. I think Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen is passionate about this because lifting the travel ban will not bring freedom to her old country. It will only bring more money to the regime and allow them to stay in power longer. If you actually think that by allowing American people their to talk about democracy will change anything. Then, you are sadly mistaken. If you DARE talk negatively of Fidel, Raul, or the revolution, then you have a big problem as a Cuban. The real solution is slowly ending the embargo in return for freedoms for the Cuban people. All of which, whether you believe it or not, is not in the interest of the Cuban Government.

Posted by Evan | Report as abusive

As a Canadian, I’ve visited Cuba several times already, met many people and learned a lot about its history and politics. Despite the fact cubans have so little, most are happy and friendly. The american embargo is hurting ordinary people not the government. It has no reason to continue. The Castro regime is not a threat to USA or other countries. More exposure to democracy through tourism, cultural and commercial exchanges is probably the best way to put an end to the repressive government that’s been in place for too long, not isolation. The failure of communism in Russia, the fall of the Berlin wall… now it’s time for Cuba to get a chance at freedom and democracy.

Posted by Michel Fortin | Report as abusive

The Governor of Idaho – a staunch Republican – and his young young wife (why?) traveled to Cuba (apparently on taxpayer’s money) supposedly to promote business between his state and the communist island. How does that work? Why can he go to buy, sell, trade, or whatever with a communist state? r2007/prapr07/pr_032.htmlOne newspaper noted that “Otter made his fourth trip to Cuba since 2000 — the others came while he was a U.S. House member — to persuade the Castro government to buy more Idaho foodstuffs.” story.asp?ID=9831

Posted by Howard | Report as abusive