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Legislation to Expand Travel to Cuba Gains Traction

Passengers wait in line to check in for the first direct passenger flight from Newark Liberty International Airport to Havana, Cuba, on Nov. 29, 2016, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

WASHINGTON – Legislation that would eliminate American travel restrictions to and from Cuba has sponsorship from 54 senators, including nine Republicans.

President Trump is expected to reverse course on President Obama’s 2014 normalization of relations with the communist nation, but Sen. Jeff Flake’s (R-Ariz.) Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act underscores that many lawmakers are still pushing to further normalize the relationship with Cuba.

“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,” Flake said in a statement. “Lifting the ban on U.S. 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.”

Following Obama’s Cuba directive, Trump sent representatives to the island to gauge investment opportunities. But during his presidential run, he called for reversal of Obama’s Cuba policy. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) recently told the National Journal that he’s “1,000 percent” certain Trump is going to fulfill his campaign promise.

The same week Flake’s legislation was introduced, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) floated a bill that would lift the trade embargo on Cuba, a lofty proposal that has gained little traction in previous attempts. That bill has 13 co-sponsors, including three Republicans. The bill would essentially make travel to Cuba comparable to travel to Jamaica. Klobuchar and her colleagues argue that lifting the embargo would foster economic opportunities for American farmers and businesses by boosting U.S. exports and allowing Cubans greater access to American goods.

“More than 50 years of isolating an island just 90 miles from our border has not secured our interests and has disadvantaged American business owners and farmers,” Klobuchar said in a statement. “This bipartisan legislation would benefit the people of both our countries by boosting American exports and creating opportunity for the Cuban people. 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.”

Klobuchar suggests that Cuba represents a $2 billion opportunity for American farmers, as the communist nation relies on agriculture to feed 11 million Cubans and 3.5 million tourists annually.

Frank O. Mora, a professor at Florida International University and expert on Cuban relations, said that the Flake bill is significant, given the amount of sponsorship. However, he said, neither bill has a chance, given congressional leadership.

“There is an effort I think on the part of (lawmakers), even Republicans, to keep pushing the issue, trying to corner the president, trying to build support in favor of keeping (Obama’s) policy change, and hopefully trying to gain momentum in moving forward on issues like travel and the embargo,” Mora said.

According to a Daily Caller report this week, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) along with Diaz-Balart have been working behind the scenes to press Trump to reverse Obama’s Cuba policies. Rubio has long criticized Obama’s stance on Cuba, citing the country’s history of human rights violations and abuses. Menendez also has condemned oppression in Cuba, while supporting the reversal in the name of democratic values.