HAVANA — A U.S. congressman who sponsored an amendment to end the ban on travel to Cuba said Monday he believes President Bush won’t fight the measure.
At the end of a three-day visit to the island, Rep. Jeff Flake said he believes his amendment prohibiting the U.S. Treasury Department from spending money on enforcing the travel ban has growing support, especially after the international custody battle over Elian Gonzalez.
“I think a lot of people saw that the Cuban-American community was just over the top,” the Arizona Republican said.
Flake has predicted that Americans will be able to freely travel to Cuba by year’s end. His amendment to a Treasury spending bill has passed the House of Representatives, and a similar measure is planned in the Senate.
Bush might fight the measure if it were an independent bill, Flake said, but it will be difficult to veto an entire spending bill. Bush has said he wants to maintain current U.S. policy toward Cuba.
“I have a hard time believing the president really feels this in his heart,” Flake said. “Some people speculate the administration would be relieved to have this behind them.”
Some Republican lawmakers have joined Democrats in supporting an end to the travel ban. Flake argues the four-decade embargo has done little to bring democracy to communist Cuba, and that increased contact with Americans would do more.
Flake said the Cuban government seems ready for American tourists.
“The Cubans certainly are building a lot of hotel rooms that won’t be filled by Canadians,” he said.
Most U.S. citizens are prohibited from traveling to Cuba under laws that bar them from spending money here. Those who violate the ban are subject to fines of up to $55,000.
Journalists, humanitarian workers and academic researchers can receive special licenses, however.
The Cuban government has long criticized the U.S. embargo and generally doesn’t oppose American tourists who visit secretly. Cuban officials often don’t stamp passports of Americans.
During his three-day visit, Flake said he ran into several U.S. business officials who were researching possible partnerships with the Cuban government in case the embargo is lifted.
Flake said he believes business people will become a stronger lobbying group. “There is no reason to allow the Canadians and the French and the Italians to get into partnerships and get a start before the Americans,” he said.