WASHINGTON — Americans dreaming of sipping mojitos on Varadero Beach or sampling Havana's bustling nightlife shouldn't pack their bags for Cuba just yet.
But proponents of relaxed relations with Cuba say they feel a step closer to lifting the U.S. ban on travel there and ending the nearly half-century-old, Kennedy-era economic embargo of the communist island, buoyed by President Barack Obama's decision this week to ease gift and travel restrictions for Cuban Americans.
For some, it's no longer a question of if the travel ban will end. It's when.
"I do think it's closer now," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., co-sponsor of a bill in the House of Representatives to end the travel ban. "The fact that the president was willing to lead partially, at least, was helpful. But we are under no illusion that it (lifting the ban) will be easy."
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Adrean Rothkopf, vice president for Western Hemisphere Affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, also sees growing momentum in Congress toward lifting the travel ban and the embargo.
"I don't think it's going to happen quickly or that it's going to be easy," said Rothkopf, whose organization has long opposed the embargo. "But I think there's a new objectivity in the Cuban-American community, and a growing bipartisan group in Congress that wants it to end. They think it's the right thing to do for Cubans, American businesses, farmers and workers."
Rothkopf believes lawmakers will take their cues from recent polls, which show that 70 percent of Americans favor having the right to visit Cuba and nearly 50 percent for ending the embargo — and the reaction this week by the politically active Cuban-American community.
The Cuban American National Foundation, which traditionally has taken a hard line against the regime of former Cuban President Fidel Castro and now his brother, Raul, welcomed Obama's Cuba moves as positive steps.
But the group says it will fight fiercely any effort to permit American tourism, which could add billions of dollars annually to the Havana government's coffers.
"Cuban-American travel is humanitarian travel. When Cuban Americans travel to Cuba they stay with family," said Camilia Gallardo, the Cuban American National Foundation's director of government relations. "American tourism would help the Cuban regime. Until there's a move by the regime towards democratization, we don't believe the travel ban should be lifted."
Flake believes his House bill can pass this year. Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., the bill's co-author, said the measure is off to a good start with 125 co-sponsors.
A similar Senate measure by Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., has 20 co-sponsors, including Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate's assistant majority leader.
For now, the bills are weaving their way through the legislative process. The Flake-Delahunt bill is in the House Foreign Affairs Committee for review and the Dorgan-Enzi measure is headed to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Delahunt said that while the bills are before the committees, proponents will try to get more co-sponsors.
"When we feel the time is right, we'll press forward," he said.
When that could happen is unclear. Spokesmen for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said neither bill is currently on the legislative calendar when Congress returns next week from its holiday recess.
Asked about the timing for lifting the travel ban and economic embargo, Pelosi told CNN's "Larry King Live" earlier this month: "Well, I don't know if that will happen now."
Obama hasn't said whether he favors lifting the Cuba travel ban for all Americans Still, several lawmakers and analysts say his Cuba decisions have created the biggest political opening in eight years to end both the travel ban and the embargo.
"I think it's a first step, and a great first step," said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, whose members visited Cuba last week. "I think the political will is there. It's got to be incremental."
Julia Sweig, a Latin America analyst for the Council on Foreign Relations, believes the bills to lift the ban were introduced "with a wink and nod of the White House."
"After eight years of this being essentially dead in Congress, it's just picking up steam," Sweig said.
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