The Republican Senator Who’s Trying to Lift the Cuba Travel Ban

Arizona Senator Jeff Flake has been on Capitol Hill long enough to know that the legislation he introduced last week lifting the Cuba travel ban probably will get little traction in the current legislative environment. Still, Flake is betting on winning in the court of public opinion.

“As more Americans now go down under the relaxed restrictions, they’ll just want more freedom,” said Flake, predicting that an expansion of regularly scheduled commercial air service would lead to broad calls for lifting the travel ban completely.

Flake, began championing the cause almost 15 years ago as a House member during the early days of the George W. Bush administration, said that at the time he ran into resistance from the White House, specifically top Bush political adviser Karl Rove, who cautioned that effort was broadly unpopular with Florida’s large Cuban-American population.

“I started doing this in 2001 and 2002, it was Karl Rove telling me, you know, it’s Florida politics,” Flake said. “That no longer applies. The politics are different than they were then.”

Recent polling shows a reversal in traditional support among Cuban-Americans for punitive policies towards Cuba, a potentially significant development for swing-state Florida politics. A 2014 Florida International University poll  found that 69 percent of Cuban Americans support lifting the travel ban and a majority—52 percent—support doing away with the trade embargo of the island nation.

That’s a dramatic shift from 1991, when 87 percent of Cuban Americans supported the embargo.

“When you look out there in the country,” Flake said, “the politics are different.”

While that may be the case, the reality remains that the balance of power on Capitol Hill remains stacked against Flake’s efforts—a reality he readily acknowledges.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has said he will defer to Florida Republican Marco Rubio on anything pertaining to U.S.-Cuba relations.

Rubio, a potential 2016 presidential aspirant and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, has been one of the most outspoken critics of President Barack Obama’s decision late last year to normalize diplomatic relations with the island nation.

Rubio’s committee will hold a hearing tomorrow (Tuesday) on U.S.-Cuba relations.

“McConnell has said that he hasn’t been involved in the issue and he’s deferring to Marco,” Flake said.

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