Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On The Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act of 2017

Mr. President, today I am very pleased to join my friend, the junior Senator from Arizona, in introducing the Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act of 2017.

I will have more to say about this bill, and United States policy toward Cuba, in the weeks and months ahead.  My purpose in speaking today is simply to point out that 54 Democratic and Republican members of the Senate have cosponsored this bill to allow Americans to travel to Cuba in the same way that they can travel to any other country in the world.  And based on my conversations with other Senators, especially Republicans, I have little doubt that if we voted on this bill today more than 60 Senators would support it.

It is indefensible that the Federal government currently restricts American citizens and legal resident from traveling to a country 90 miles away that poses no threat to us, unless they engage in certain activities and not others.  For example, an American biologist can go to Cuba to study threatened species of migratory birds.  That same American cannot take his family on a trip to visit Cuba’s national parks.  Why?  Because one is defined as scientific research and the other is defined as tourism.

At a time when U.S. airlines and cruise ships are flying and sailing to Cuba, does anyone here honestly think that preventing Americans from traveling is an appropriate role of the Federal government?  Why only Cuba?  Why not Venezuela?  Or Russia?  Or Iran, or anywhere else?  It is a vindictive, discriminatory, self-defeating vestige of a time long passed.

This bill would end these Cold War restrictions on the freedom of Americans to travel.  It would not do away with the embargo. 

We are told that the Trump Administration is conducting a review of U.S. policy toward Cuba.  That is to be expected of a new administration.  We have also heard a rumor, and I hope it is only a rumor, that in return for the votes of certain Senators or representative on health care legislation, promises may have been made by the White House to impose further restrictions on the normalization of relations with Cuba.  I hope that is not the case.  I hope the review produces a policy based on what is in the U.S. national security interest and on what is in the interests of the American and Cuban people, an overwhelming majority of whom want closer relations.  And I hope the policy reflects the bipartisan majority in Congress that supports expanding our engagement with Cuba, as evidenced by the bill we are introducing today.

I and others who have traveled to Cuba many times over the past 20 years, who have met with Cuban officials, with Cubans who have been persecuted for opposing the Castro government, and with many others, have requested meetings with top White House officials before the review is completed and any final decisions are made. 

Every one of us wants to see an end to political repression in Cuba.  The arrests and physical mistreatment of dissidents by the Cuban government are deplorable, just as they are by other governments including some, like Egypt’s and Turkey’s, whose leaders have been feted at the White House, or, in the case of Saudi Arabia, have feted President Trump and his family.  Americans can travel freely to Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and every other country, except Cuba.

The issue is how best to support the people of Cuba who struggle to make ends meet, and who  want to live in a country where freedom of expression and association are protected, and where they can choose their own leaders in a democratic manner. 

Anyone who thinks that more economic pressure, or ultimatums, will force the Cuban authorities to stop arresting political dissidents and embrace democracy have learned nothing from history.  For more than half a century we have tried a policy of unilateral sanctions and isolation, and it has achieved neither of those goals.  Instead, it has been used by the Cuban government as an excuse for repression to protect Cuba’s sovereignty.  It has hurt the Cuban people, not the Cuban government.  And it has provided an opening for our adversaries and competitors, like Russia and China, in this hemisphere. 

Change is coming to Cuba, and we can help support that process.  There is already visible, tangible evidence that the changes in U.S. policy initiated by President Obama are having positive effects for the Cuban people and for our security and economic relations with Cuba, even though critics, particularly those who have never been to Cuba, prefer to deny it.

But most importantly, the bipartisan bill we are introducing today is about the right of Americans, not Cubans, to travel.  Any member of Congress, especially those who have been to Cuba, should support the right of their constituents to do so.  American citizens are our best Ambassadors to Cuba, and it is wrong for the United States government to be imposing restrictions that have no place in the law books of a free society.

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