The Committee on Agriculture in the U.S. House passed legislation on Wednesday that suggests a possible lifting of the travel ban to Cuba, but Americans shouldn't make plans just yet.
For starters, while H.R. 4645, aka the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act, is a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by 62 members of Congress and passed by the committee with a 25-20 vote, it still has to go through two more committee hurdles: Foreign Affairs and Financial Services. The real fight — and thus the real bill, once it's been adjusted — won't be revealed until later this summer, when, and if, it makes it through the other committees and is then taken up by the full House. Attempts were made in committee, in fact, to drop the travel section — and no one should be surprised if it doesn't survive in future versions.
If the legislation were to pass as is, it would create new jobs in U.S. agriculture and the airline industry (by opening up new routes) and restore Americans' right to travel to Cuba.
But while the bill's title may reference travel first and suggests its paramount importance, where there's actual bipartisan support is in the second part: agriculture. The bill's sponsors, in fact, are Democrat Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota and GOP Rep. Jerry Moran of Kansas, whose states would benefit from expanded agricultural sales to the island. Of the 25 votes to get the bill out of the Agriculture Committee, four were Republican.
The U.S. has a half-century-long economic embargo on Cuba, but in 2000 — 10 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and during Cuba's "Special Period," the euphemism used on the island to refer to its post-Soviet economic catastrophe — President Bill Clinton exempted "humanitarian aid," meaning food and medicine, from penalties.
According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 has generated an average of $320 million in annual sales to the island since its enactment; Cuba now ranks in the top 30 out of 228 countries in total purchases of U.S. farm products and is the fifth-largest market in Latin America for U.S. agricultural exports.
But while the exemptions allowed U.S. food sales, they did so only under certain conditions: Cuba cannot pay with credit; it can use only cash. In addition, the nation is not currently allowed to pay U.S. producers directly; it must go through banks in third countries. This became necessary because Cuban property in the United States is subject to confiscation by American authorities on behalf of Cuban exiles in the U.S. with legal claims against the Cuban government.
H.R. 4645 will eliminate all this and permit direct payment by Cuba to U.S. banks for American agricultural products, saving time and expense. It will also ease the transferring of product title.
Most business, farm and legal groups in the United States, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, support H.R. 4645, including the lifting of the travel ban, and expanded ties with Cuba. A March 2010 Texas A&M study suggests the embargo could, if lifted, generate $365 million in direct sales and 6,000 new jobs in the United States.
Detractors, including many in the Cuban-American community and in conservative circles, argue that there should be more to American foreign policy than profit. Specifically, they see expanded trade and reduced costs as rewards for the Cuban government's continuous breach of human rights.
No less than Amnesty International released a report on Wednesday saying, "Cuba's repressive legal system has created a climate of fear among journalists, dissidents and activists, putting them at risk of arbitrary arrest and harassment by the authorities." The report cited recent arrests, harassment by vigilante mobs and Internet restrictions.
In Cuba, dissidents are split on the embargo: Most well-known names, such as Yoani Sanchez and Elizardo Sanchez (not related), support lifting it to ease the hardships on ordinary Cubans, even if the Cuban government gains in the process. They suggest that the embargo has given cover to the government — and lifting the embargo would eliminate the government's excuses for its many failures. Others, such as Ariel Sigler, who was recently released after serving seven years of a 25-year sentence, strongly oppose lifting the embargo, arguing that it's important not to give the government a quarter.
Achy Obejas is an author whose most recent book is Ruins, a novel about Cuba in the Special Period. She was born in Cuba and came to the United States by boat in 1963. Since then she has returned to Cuba innumerable times. She writes about Cuba for The Root and other U.S.-based publications.