Thursday, July 21, 2011

Diaz-Balart move to tighten Cuba travel could pass in Congress

Posted on Thursday, 07.21.11

Diaz-Balart move to tighten Cuba travel could pass in Congress

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart efforts to tighten travel to Cuba stand a good
chance of passing in Congress despite a presidential veto threat.
By Juan O. Tamayo

An effort by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart to overturn Obama administration
rules easing restrictions on travel to Cuba may win congressional
approval despite a threatened presidential veto, according to supporters
and even some critics.

The Florida Republican's proposal was initially given little chance of
becoming law, especially after President Barack Obama last week vowed to
veto it if it reached the White House for his signature.

But as the bill's possible paths through Capitol Hill became clearer,
even some of its critics now say they believe the measure stands a
reasonable chance of making it past Congress and even the White House.

"Although we appreciate the president's veto threat, there is no
question that this misguided legislation, due to the way it's been
placed in an appropriations bill, has a good chance," said former
Democratic congressional candidate Joe Garcia.

"I am certainly NOT surprised that this looks like it's going to pass,"
added Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the U.S. Cuba Democracy
political action committee, which supports strong U.S. sanctions on Cuba.

Diaz-Balart's effort would set Cuba travel restrictions back to their
level under President George W. Bush: for Cuban-Americans, only one trip
every three years for "family reunifications," a cap of $1,200 per year
in remittances to relatives and a tighter definition of "family."
Restrictions on non-Cuban U.S residents were far tighter.

Under Obama administration policies designed to help the island's civil
society overcome the grip of the Communist government, Cuban Americans
can visit Cuba as many times as they wish and send at least $2,000 a
year. Travel and remittance regulations for non-Cuban U.S. residents
also have been eased.

Diaz-Balart's proposal has come under withering criticism from some
Cuban-Americans and dissidents on the island who argue that it would
only add to the distance between Cuban families on either side of the
Florida Straits.

"This measure not only tries to determine who is your relative but when
you can visit them," said Xiomara Almaguer-Levy, president of Xael
Charters Inc., one of the seven South Florida companies with U.S.
licenses to charter flights to Cuba. "We also have 18 employees and a
bunch of companies that depend on this business."

She and other charter company owners have flown to Washington to lobby
Congress members to spike the Diaz Balart effort. Other critics bought
full page ads in Miami newspapers attacking it and staged a protest at a
Diaz-Balart office in Doral.

Almaguer-Levy, like many other critics of the South Florida
congressman's effort, argues that his language on Cuba is certain to
fail because of the Obama threat to veto it.

But the future of the Diaz-Balart effort in fact does not appear to be
so negative, according to Claver-Carone, Garcia and a Democratic Capitol
Hill staffer who asked for anonymity to avoid becoming entangled in the
politically sensitive issue.

Diaz-Balart's wording on Cuba was approved by a voice vote — indicating
there was no strong opposition — in the House Appropriations Committee
as an amendment to a bill funding the Treasury Department and other
agencies for the coming fiscal year.

The bill is all but certain to be approved unchanged by the
Republican-controlled House. The Democratic-controlled Senate usually
does not draft its own version of the Treasury budget bill, leaving it
to a House-Senate conference committee, with members appointed by
congressional leaders, to craft a compromise.

House and Senate Democrats in the conference committee will try to strip
the Diaz-Balart language out of the bill, said the Capitol Hill staffer,
"but in a conference committee the leadership gives the orders, and on
this one I don't know if the Democratic leadership is willing to die for
travel to Cuba."

That leadership would include Sen. Bob Menendez, a powerful
Cuban-American democrat from New Jersey who has steadily and harshly
criticized Obama's efforts to ease the Cuba travel restrictions.

What's more, Claver-Carone said he has noticed a drop in Capitol Hill
enthusiasm for easing regulations on travel to Cuba, amid reports that
some Cuban-Americans are travelling to the island repeatedly.

"When the same people are going to Cuba two and three times and even
more times a year, that starts to take the edge off the humanitarian
intent" of easing the travel restrictions, the lobbyist said.

Obama's veto threat also rings hollow, the Capitol Hill staffer said,
because he needs both the funding bill and Menendez's support in
Congress as well as for raising money and campaigning in Florida and New
Jersey for the 2012 presidential election.

He also noted the Cuba language was the last of the three sections of
the Treasury bill that Obama threatened to veto in the five-page
declaration the White House issued last week. The other sections he
opposes cover issues with far more resonance across the nation — Wall
Street reforms and consumer protection measures.

"Would Obama really veto the bill and risk de-funding Treasury?" the
staffer added. "This all seems like too much brinksmanship."

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