Pro and con Cuba bills axed from U.S. budget

United States Congressional leaders have dropped both a measure to restrict Cuban-American travel and remittances to the Spanish-speaking Caribbean island and another to make it easier for Cuba to buy U.S. goods.

In putting some of the final touches on a compromise US$1 trillion spending bill, the Congressional leaders stripped a measure by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fl.) that would once again have limited “family reunification” trips to once every three years, capped remittances at US$1,200 per year and tightened the definition of “family.”

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 US goods permissible under the near 50-year-old trade and economic embargo.

The Cuba issue was one of the last hurdles blocking consideration of the U.S. government spending bill.

The House of Representatives’ 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.

The House and Senate conferees had reached a compromise 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.

A House committee approved the Diaz-Balart proposal in June by a voice vote — with no objections — as a rider to a U.S. Department of Treasury spending bill.

That bill was later joined with eight other spending bills and rolled into the US$1 trillion measure now before Congress.

President Barack 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 last 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 had said that the Diaz-Balart measure would be “a terrible step backward.”

Another Cuban blogger Orlando Luis Pardo had told Obama, “We await your veto.”

Dissident Havana economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe and his wife, Miriam Leiva wrote in an Internet column on Dec. 15 that they opposed the Diaz-Balart measure because the remittances “help Cubans on the island who face serious shortages and misery.”

The Washington-based Cuba Study Group, made up of largely moderate Cuban American business people, said Obama’s travel policies had helped Cubans reduce their dependence on their government and allowed some to start their own mini-businesses.

To reverse that policy now “is to condemn Cuban families to continued dependence on the Cuban state” and could delay “the kind of transition most of us would like to see in Cuba,” it said.

Obama said he remains committed to “protecting the ability of Cuban Americans to support their families in Cuba through unrestricted family visits and remittances.”

His comment came at the end of a statement praising the late Laura Pollán, founder of Cuba’s dissident Ladies in White. The National Endowment for Democracy posthumously awarded Pollán its Democracy Service Medal on Dec.14.

More from Around NYC