Congress Lifts Restrictions on Cuba, or Not?

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Yesterday the Senate approved the $410 billlion omnibus spending bill to fund most of the federal government for the remainder of the year:

In an important policy shift, the bill includes a loosening of restrictions on travel to and imports from Cuba that the Bush administration imposed. The issue proved explosive among supporters of the trade embargo. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the leader of the group, voiced strong objections last week on the chamber floor and withdrew his support for the underlying legislation, forcing Reid to delay a final vote from Thursday until last night.

But Menendez, along with Sens. Bill Nelson (D) and Mel Martinez (R), who are both from Florida, said they were reassured by a letter from Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner pledging that the Cuba provision would be interpreted narrowly, and the two Democrats supported the final bill.

Americans will be allowed to travel to Cuba once a year, even when that remains illegal, and send more money to relatives on the island. Remittances are a huge source of revenue to people in Cuba, where the average salary is $20 a month and access to better medical care is paid for in US dollars.

The Miami Herald explains,

The budget bill, which already passed the House, creates a general travel license for Americans who want to travel to Cuba to cut agricultural and medical sales deals with the communist government. It also lets Cuba pay for goods on arrival -- instead of before the products leave U.S. ports -- and removes funding for enforcement of family travel restrictions enacted by former President George W. Bush.

Geithner wrote that the agricultural travel license would be limited to ''only a narrow class of businesses,'' which would have to report back on their trips. By law, he said, Cuba would still have to pay up front.

Left intact in the bill, which expires in October, is a measure that suspends enforcement of rules that say Cuban Americans can only visit immediate relatives once every three years. Travel to the island would still be illegal, but the department wouldn't be allowed to spend money trying to catch anyone doing it.

Geithner's letter is controversial:

* Senators Menendez, Nelson and Martinez were assured by Geithner that the new law will be interpreted so strictly as to be ineffective. If so, why pass it?

* Travel to Cuba by Americans will still be illegal but the government won't be trying to enforce the law. Then why the assurance that the new law will be strictly interpreted?

* According to the Miami Herald, when asked about the Geithner letter, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said: ``It's like a presidential signing statement, except it's not the president, and it's not a signing statement.''

* In view of that, why would the Treasury Department pay any attention to Geithner's letter in six months from now?

* Another question: why didn't Pres. Obama issue his own executive order?

Rep. José E. Serrano (D-N.Y.), who wrote the Cuba amendments in the bill, promised a "showdown", and warned that the law is not open to "creative interpretation."

Meanwhile, in Cuba, Cuban Official Rules Out Any Obama Preconditions for Improved Relations.

Stay tuned.

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