By Maria Peña
WASHINGTON – Democrats and Republicans deployed their heavy artillery Thursday in a heated congressional hearing to debate a bill seeking to end the travel ban to Cuba.
The meeting of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to discuss Cuba, the first since 2007, had moments of tension but also engendered applause from activists both in favor of and opposing the bill.
In an icy exchange, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said she was “offended” by the stance of retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who supports an increase in direct contacts with Cuba.
McCaffrey, in turn, said he was “offended” by the insinuations of the Cuban-American lawmaker that he sympathizes with Castro and said flatly that Cuba is no threat to U.S. national security.
The chairman of the committee, California Democrat Howard Berman, made clear that he is seeking to eliminate the “anachronistic” ban imposed by executive order in 1962, maintaining that scrapping the restrictions would not be a “gift” for Cuba’s communist regime, but rather a move to promote U.S. national interests.
The testimony in favor of the measure included – besides that of McCaffrey – remarks made by Miriam Leiva, founder of the Ladies in White group comprising relatives of Cuban political prisoners; Ignacio Sosa, a board member of charity Friends of Caritas Cubana, and Phil Peters, a Cuba analyst at the Lexington Institute
The statements against lifting the ban came from the former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, James Cason, and Berta Antunez, the sister of ex-political prisoner Jorge Luis Garcia Perez.
Antunez said that “more than tourists, Cubans need the support of Congress in favor of freedom” on the island.
For supporters of the bill, among them Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, the tourism would foster dialogue with the Cuban people and would accelerate the diffusion of democratic ideas in Cuba.
Recent surveys indicate that 67 percent of Cuban-Americans and 64 percent of all Americans support the lifting of the travel restrictions.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who this year traveled to Havana, denounced the double standard that allows U.S. residents to travel freely to countries like Sudan, North Korea and Burma, but not to nearby Cuba.
Ros-Lehtinen, the committee’s ranking Republican, insisted that any measure to make the embargo more flexible only “rewards the Cuban regime with dollars.”
European tourists, the Cuban-American congresswoman complained, travel to Cuba for “rum, music, sex, cigars and sun” and that, in her judgment, has not resulted in freedom on the island.
Her Republic colleague, Connie Mack of Florida, emphasized that Canadian and European tourists have not contributed to mitigating repression in Cuba.
Mack said that in 2007 there were 2.1 million tourists who traveled to the island and noted that tourism there generates more than $2 billion annually.
The U.S. International Trade Commission estimates that a little more than a million U.S. citizens would visit Cuba each year if Congress were to lift the travel ban.
The bill has 179 co-sponsors, but
it needs at least 218 of the total of 435 votes in the lower house to pass. It has the backing of the Catholic Church, some sectors of the business community and even some leaders among the Cuban exile community.
The Senate has drafted a similar version of the bill, but it has not yet scheduled hearings on the legislation.
Before the hearing, a group of Cuban-Americans praised the fact that President Barack Obama lifted travel restrictions on them, but they said that the move was not enough.
“We must give (the Cuban government) the example that we are not restricting our citizens,” said Silvia Wilhelm, the founder of the organization Puentes Cubanos.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi placed in doubt on Thursday whether the bill will be voted on before the end of the year, given that the House is immersed in the thorny issue of health care reform. EFE