HAVANA TIMES, Nov. 20 – Yesterday the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing regarding a bill (HR 874) that would lift the ban on US citizens’ right to travel to Cuba. The hearing, originally scheduled to run two hours stretched from 10am to 2pm, with spectators beginning to line up for seats well before 7am.
Tensions were high as the committee includes the most fervent supporters of normalization of relations with Cuba on the one side: Rep. Jeff Flake and Rep. Delahunt, who are the authors of the so-called “travel for all” bill; Rep. Barbara Lee; Rep. Meeks etc., and on the other side the most rabid opponents, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen, Albio Sires, Connie Mack, Rep. Dan Burton, and Rep. Christopher Smith.
In opening remarks, the supporters of lifting the ban stuck to arguments of the rights of US citizens to freely travel wherever they choose, pointing out that Cuba is the only country in the world where they cannot travel.
These congress people argued that the issue at hand is not the current conditions of human rights in Cuba but rather the status of civil rights in a free nation that is currently applying a discriminatory law that allows a segment of the US population (Cuban-Americans) to travel to Cuba while prohibiting others.
They posed that predicating further engagement with the island’s people on gestures of good-will from the Cuban leadership effectively cedes power to a foreign government over the rights of US citizens.
Unfortunately the opposition barely mentioned travel at all. They chose to denounce the Cuban government regarding political prisoners and human rights abuses.
Each offered as an example, Yoani Sanchez’ recent claim that she was detained and injured by Cuban security agents. However, they effectively ignored the statement that Yoani herself sent to the hearing and that the Chairman of the committee read aloud in which the blogger called for the travel ban to be lifted.
Similarly they discounted the testimony of Miriam Leiva, founder of Las Damas de Blanco and wife of a former political prisoner who joined the hearing via video conference from the US Interest Section in Havana.
She affirmed that the dissident community, as well as most political prisoners, wants unfettered travel by US Americans to Cuba. They see people-to-people engagement as a way of introducing new ideas and providing support for change.
They also feel increased presence of US Americans will lead to improvements in human rights conditions in Cuba and the travel dollars they bring will boost the economic situation of the Cuban people.
Travel dollars, she assured, make it into the hands of average Cubans through art and craft sales, room rentals, in-home restaurants, taxis, tips, farmers markets etc. thus making the Cuban people less reliant on the Cuban government to make ends meet.
Which side came out of this hearing ahead depends on how you score it. If scored by strength of objective and rational argument for opening travel to Cuba, the pro-travel side won hands down. If scored by emotional button pushing, loudness of voice, redness of face, and who took the role of defense and who played the role of offense, the right-wing Cubans come out far ahead.