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Congressman Voices Support for Lifting Cuba Travel Ban

September 23, 2009 By: Jena Tesse Fox

Fifty years after the revolution that turned Cuba into a Communist state, President Barack Obama has made some motions toward lifting the 50-year old American embargo against travel to the island. People with family in Cuba may now visit their relatives, for starters.

But some Americans— and the politicians who represent them— want Cuba to become completely accessible.

This week, Congressman Sam Farr, a Democrat from California explained his reasons for supporting the “Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act.” Joining him at New York’s headquarters for the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) were Robert Whitley, USTOA president; Lisa Simon, president of the National Tour Association; Geoff Thale, program director at the Washington Office on Latin America; and Angelica Salazar, the Cuba Policy Outreach Coordinartor at the Washington Office on Latin America.

“We're here because there's a new wind blowing in America about lifting the travel ban on Cuba,” Congressman Farr began. “The new wind is that Obama got elected, and got elected in Florida, and won the vote of Cuban-Americans under the age of 32. The future of Cuban-American relationships by that generation is expressed in their interest in normalizing trade and normalizing travel— particularly travel.”

Farr acknowledged that there is opposition to lifting the embargo, and mentions two major groups (perhaps, somewhat ironically, representing both the left wing and right wing) that want it to remain: the business world and human rights organizations. “The human rights people want transparency,” he said. “There are human rights violations in Cuba, but this frozen policy hasn't done anything to improve them. Let's try something different. And for the business community, it's an opportunity. Right now, when we're trying to recover from a historic recession and we're looking for ways to jump-start the economy and get a lot of people hired, this is what you call a ‘shovel-ready’ issue. You can lift that travel ban and put a lot of people to work.”

“If we withhold tourism,” Simon added, “the economy won't collapse. Isolation has not helped human rights; engagement will.”

Farr said that he has significant support from Congress already. “We've got a bill in both the House and the Senate, and we have a record number of pro-sponsors,” he said. The bill needs 218 votes to pass in the House, he continues, and 181 representatives want to have their names attached to it. 30 more say they're in favor, but don't want their names attached. Politicians, he said, need to hear from their constituents in order to get the final votes necessary to pass the bill.

Just as congresspeople are representatives of their constituents, travel agents are representatives of their clients—and, as Salazar pointed out, they can wield a significant amount of power in that position. “We need agents contacting congresspeople as representatives,” she said.

Farr eagerly agreed, pointing out the irony of the United States government condemning a Communist government’s interference in its citizens’ lives— while simultaneously forbidding American travel agents from selling travel to Cuba. “The government is telling agents that they can't do their jobs,” he said.

“The opposition is really based on emotion,” Congressman Farr said. “It's based on hatred for the Castro regime and what Castro did during the revolution—taking away [people’s] private homes, their businesses and their lifestyle...Thousands of people had to come to this country and start all over again. But the children and grandchildren of those same people are the ones who voted for Obama, so now is the time.”

Ultimately, he said, the major impact of the embargo is that the only people in the Americas who can’t visit Cuba…are Americans.

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