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