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Push to end U.S. curbs on Cuba travel renewed

WASHINGTON — Buoyed by a new administration, advocates for trade with Cuba unveiled a bill Tuesday that would lift travel restrictions to the island, allowing Americans to visit there freely.

The bipartisan group of senators, who've long pushed for increased trade with Cuba, say they think that momentum is now on their side, noting that President Barack Obama campaigned on a promise to change U.S.-Cuba policy.

The new bill would bar the president from regulating travel to Cuba, and its supporters said it would help bring changes to the communist-led nation, which for 50 years has been governed by Fidel Castro and now his younger brother, Raul.

Current U.S. policy "has done nothing to weaken the Castro regime," said the bill's chief champion, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who's introduced the bill since 2003. "It's long past the time to change this ill-advised policy."

Proponents of hard-line sanctions against the regime vowed to block the legislation, however — as they have for the past two sessions of Congress — saying that the bill would enrich Cuban government coffers by promoting tourism to the island.

"We should be siding with the oppressed, not with the oppressors," said Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla.

He suggested that the Senate was getting ahead of Obama, noting that Vice President Joe Biden said Saturday on a visit to Chile that the administration had no plans to lift the economic embargo against Cuba. Martinez also noted that Obama hasn't said he'd lift the travel ban but that he'd roll back President George W. Bush-era regulations that limit remittances sent to the island and bar Cuban-Americans from visiting family members on the island more often than every three years.

Proponents of the legislation argue that U.S. policy is a Cold War relic that should be scrapped. Dorgan was joined by Jose Miguel Vivanco, the director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, who argued that current U.S. policy "has neither weakened the Cuban government" nor improved conditions for Cuba's political prisoners. Business groups pledged to push for the legislation with Bob Stallman, the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, saying that it would help farmers sell more products to Cuba, which he called an important market for soybeans, rice and poultry.

"I think we've finally reached a new watermark on this issue," Dorgan said, adding that he thinks that he has sufficient votes in the House of Representatives and the Senate to get the bill passed. "At some point this is a policy that is no longer justifiable. When something doesn't work for 50 years, clear-headed thinking has to say, 'You know what? It's time to change it.' "

Martinez scoffed at the suggestion that American tourists will usher in democratic change, noting that tourists from Canada, Italy, Spain and Germany have had little effect on the country's government.

Identical legislation will be introduced Thursday in the House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi supports the bill, but a Democratic aide said its passage was uncertain. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has opposed changes to U.S.-Cuba policy, but he said Tuesday that he expected a vote on the measure.

"It's rarely a year goes by since I've been in the Senate that we don't have a vote on Cuba, and I'm sure this year will be no different," he said.

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