Friday, December 16, 2011

Bid to tighten up Cuba travel dropped from budget bill,

Posted on Thursday, 12.15.11

Bid to tighten up Cuba travel dropped from budget bill

Cuba was one of the last issues holding up a $1 trillion spending bill
in the U.S. Congress. A bid to make it easier for Cuba to buy U.S.
imports also fell.
By Juan O. Tamayo

Congressional leaders dropped both a measure to restrict Cuban-American
travel and remittances to the island and another to make it easier for
Cuba to buy U.S. goods, putting some of the final touches Thursday on a
compromise $1 trillion spending bill..

The agreement stripped a measure by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-South
Florida, that would once again have limited "family reunification" trips
to once every three years, capped remittances at $1,200 per year, and
tightened the definition of "family," said Congressional aides.

In exchange, the Congressional leadership also agreed to drop a measure
by Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., that would have eased a requirement that
Cuba pay cash and in advance when buying U.S. goods permissible under
the embargo, according to the aides.

The Cuba issue was one of the last hurdles blocking consideration of the
government spending bill. If the bitterly partisan Congress does not
approve it by midnight Friday, major parts of the government would have
to shut down.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., agreed to the
compromise on Cuba in exchange for a promise from Senate Majority Leader
Harry Reid, D-Nevada, to allow the spending bill to be voted on Friday.

House and Senate conferees had reached a compromise this week on a
version of the bill, but Reid, responding to White House concerns, would
not release it until the Cuba provisions and other issues, including
some abortion regulations, were ironed out.

If the Rogers-Reid understanding falls through, the House Republican
majority could push its own version of the spending bill, which would
still retain the Cuba language, according to media reports Thursday.

It was not immediately clear if House Republicans had enough votes to
approve the unilateral version, or how the four Cuban-Americans in the
House would vote. The three Republicans and one Democrat include Rep.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-South Florida, powerful chair of the House
Foreign Affairs Committee.

A House committee approved the Diaz-Balart proposal in June by a voice
vote — with no objections — as a rider to a Treasury spending bill. That
bill was later joined with eight other spending bills and rolled into
the $1 trillion measure now before Congress.

Obama, who in 2009 lifted virtually all restrictions on travel and
remittances by Cubans in the United States, threatened to veto the
Florida Republican's rider a month later. But it was not until this week
that Congressional infighting threw light on the issue.

Supporters of restricted Cuba travel contend that the trips and cash are
simply pumping more money into the coffers of Cuba's communist
government at a time when it has stepped up repression of political
dissidents and human-rights activists and holds U.S. government
contractor Alan Gross in prison.

But others argue that the visits help Cuban families reunite, and that
the remittances help Cubans break free of their dependence on the
government and even start private businesses, such as restaurants and
carpentry shops.

Havana blogger Yoani Sánchez tweeted that the Diaz-Balart measure would
be "a terrible step backward" and blogger Orlando Luis Pardo, in another
tweet addressed to Obama, wrote, "We await your veto."

Dissident Havana economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe and his wife, Miriam
Leiva, wrote in an Internet column Thursday that they opposed the
Diaz-Balart measure because the remittances "help Cubans on the island
who face serious shortages and misery."

The spending bill would fund much of the government operations for the
2012 fiscal year. The current continuing spending resolution — the
latest of seven approved this year — is due to expire at midnight Friday.

The White house has urged Congress that if it cannot adopt the full
one-year spending bill to avert a government shutdown, it should pass
another short-term resolution.

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