WASHINGTON — Pressure from some Florida members of Congress is making it harder to travel to Cuba even as thousands of their constituents line up to fly to the forbidden island.
The stream of passengers from South Florida to Cuba has slowed slightly since 2011, as some would-be travelers balk at the cost of licensed educational tours and others remain stymied by a ban on casual pleasure trips.
Now some in Congress are trying to tighten those rules to further discourage travel to Cuba, except for Cuban-Americans visiting their families. At the same time, travel proponents are pressing President Barack Obama to use his executive powers to loosen the rules so that all Americans are free to roam the island on their own.
The long-simmering debate over Cuba travel has heated up as prominent politicians — including Hillary Clinton, a prospective presidential candidate, and Charlie Crist, a candidate for governor of Florida — have called for an end to the travel ban.
Recent poll results indicate that travel restrictions have fallen out of favor, even among Cuban-Americans fervently opposed to the Castro regime.
“Absolutely I believe we should drop the restrictions,” said J.K. McCrea, 67, of Fort Lauderdale, who was able to attend a baptism in Cuba in 2012 while her husband was on an academic mission.
“It was sad because the other Americans had to stay with their tour groups and weren’t allowed to wander,” she said. “We were able to go down the streets and visit the markets. They developed a lot of fear because they were restricted from going anywhere. They had the impression it would be very dangerous. But there was no problem whatever. Everybody wanted to talk about baseball. The welcoming experience was amazing.”
To encourage contacts between Americans and Cubans, Obama loosened travel rules in 2009 to allow Cuban-Americans unlimited trips to visit relatives. Two years later, he furthered loosened the travel ban to allow groups to apply for a license to lead educational tours.
But Cuban-Americans in Congress — notably Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami — vehemently objected, saying many such trips amount to tourism that puts money in the hands of an oppressive
Rubio blocked Senate confirmation of one of Obama’s top State Department nominees until the administration agreed to tighten enforcement of the new rules. Tour groups must submit a rigorous agenda of “purposeful travel,” stressing cultural activities and history tours while steering clear of lounging, recreation and rum-drinking at the beach.
Diaz-Balart last month inserted further restrictions into a money bill that is moving through the U.S. House.
“Regrettably, the Obama administration weakened sanctions to allow travel which features tourist activities, such as scuba diving, salsa dancing, jazz clubs, cigar factory tours, and other clearly tourist activities,” Diaz-Balart said last week. He said his proposals are designed to “end so-called ‘people-to-people’ travel to Cuba, closing this Obama-created loophole.”
Charter flights from Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport to Havana have dropped from three per week to only one. Airport officials still hope to get a burst of traffic if Cuba is ever opened up to tourists.
Flights from Miami International Airport, a major hub for Cuba travel, dropped from 7,131 in 2011 to 6,097 last year. The number of Cuba-bound passengers dipped from 657,838 in 2011 to 637,754 last year, according to the Miami-Dade Aviation Department.
Cuban-Americans remain avid visitors, including sugar baron Alfonso Fanjul of Palm Beach, a prominent exile who reconnected with his homeland in 2012 and 2013. But critics of the embargo say the traffic is restrained by tight regulations on educational tours and the ongoing ban on pleasure trips, which discourages casual and repeated visits.
“That lends itself to Americans not being able to freely roam the country as they wish. They have to stick to the agenda, and that includes an official program where you have to see what the Cuban government wants you to see,” said Ricardo Herrero, executive director of #CubaNow, a new Miami-based advocacy group that pushes against the travel ban.
His group and other advocates are urging Obama to allow all Americans to visit Cuba as individuals on a general license not tied to a pre-approved itinerary. Herrero points to a poll released by Florida International University last month, which found that 69 percent of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County support lifting travel restrictions for all Americans.
Encouraged by such signs, Clinton and Crist are making a case for removing travel limits while ending the U.S. embargo, setting up a clear contrast to Republican leaders.
“People are voting with their feet,” said David Hernandez, 44, of West Palm Beach, who left Cuba at age 4 and returned for the first time last year. “We need to stop being obsessed with a policy designed to hurt the Cuban government and instead obsess over a policy to help the Cuban people.”
William E. Gibson, Washington Bureau
July 13, 2014