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Flake joins group pushing to end travel restrictions to Cuba

WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of senators, including Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, moved to expand on the president’s overtures toward Cuba, introducing a bill Thursday to lift the ban on American travel to the communist country.

Flake said that while President Barack Obama’s December announcement that the U.S. would normalize relations with Cuba will make it easier to travel to there, he and the others believe that the restrictions “ought to go completely.”

“It’s time to allow Americans to travel freely to Cuba,” Flake said at a news conference to unveil the bill Thursday. “This will be good for the Cuban people and also good for Americans.”

Flake said that U.S. travel restrictions, enacted in 1996 and 2000, have proved to be ineffective and that allowing American travel to Cuba could eventually lead to the spread of democracy.

But Mike Gonzalez, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, cautioned that letting Americans travel to and spend money in Cuba would financially support the “pathologically anti-American” Cuban leaders. The military controls 80 percent of the Cuban economy, he said.

“We do not want Americans traipsing in Cuba and handing the military enough money so they can remain in power and oppress the Cuban people,” Gonzalez said.

But Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the policy of isolating Cuba just hasn’t worked.

“We tried it for 50 years,” said Durbin, a co-sponsor of the bill. “We said if we closed the door in Cuba, Cuba would change. We did not succeed in that policy. It’s time for a new policy.”

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Obama in December announced the new policy and this month the administration took the first steps, saying it would relax limited travel and trade restrictions and begin discussions on reopening embassies, among other actions.

Flake said that while some people might see completely lifting the travel ban as a concession to Cuba, the senators’ bill is “simply saying that Americans should be allowed to have the right to travel wherever they would like to unless there’s a compelling national security reason.”

“We all need to remember that this is a sanction or prohibition on Americans not Cubans,” Flake said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., another co-sponsor, agreed with Flake, saying the travel prohibition, “makes no sense.”

“It’s one thing if another country tells me I can’t go and visit them, it’s something else if my country tells me I can’t as an American,” Leahy said.

Flake also announced Thursday that he and six other Republican senators had written to Obama “affirming their commitment to work to expand trade and travel between the United States and Cuba,” according to a statement from his office.

The letter said it is time for “a new discussion about the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba,” pointing to the need for relaxing restrictions on travel and trade.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has criticized Obama’s plan to normalize relations with Cuba, writing with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that it follows a pattern of “the appeasement of autocratic dictators, thugs, and adversaries, diminishing America’s influence in the world.”

McCain could not be reached Thursday for his reaction to the bipartisan Senate bill.

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Jan 30, 2015, 6:44 pm
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Interesting how the Heritage Foundation claims to support freedom yet they are against allowing Americans to travel freely to Cuba…yet they have no problem with the US having ties with repressive regimes in Russia and China…

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Jessica Boehm/Cronkite News

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., with Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., left, and Pat Leahy, D-Vt., discusses the bipartisan bill that would lift the long-standing U.S. ban on travel to Cuba.