A bipartisan group of senators, led by Patrick Leahy (D-VT), today introduced legislation that would lift all restrictions on travel between the United States and Cuba. The bill, known as the “Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act of 2019,” has 45 co-sponsors, among them four Republicans.
The bill is identical to one that was introduced in the House of Representatives last week by Massachusetts Democrat James McGovern and Minnesota Republican Tom Emmer.
“It is indefensible that the federal government restricts American citizens and legal residents from traveling to a tiny country 90 miles away that poses no threat to us,” Leahy said in a statement. “It is a vindictive, discriminatory, self-defeating vestige of a time long passed.”
Since the end of the Eisenhower administration, the U.S. government has imposed various restrictions on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba—ranging from an outright ban, to limitations on money that could be spent on the island, to a prohibition on vacationing in Cuba—intended to sanction and isolate the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro. As a component of the U.S. trade embargo, the travel restrictions were codified into law as part of the Helms-Burton legislation passed in 1996.
Today, Cuba is the only nation in the world where statutory restrictions limit the rights of U.S. citizens to travel abroad.
As President Obama moved to establish a policy of normalized diplomatic relations with Cuba, he used his presidential authority to open up exemptions to the travel restrictions. His administration lifted restrictions imposed by the George W. Bush administration on family travel to Cuba, permitting Cuban-Americans to visit relatives on the island whenever they want. Obama expanded categories of “purposeful travel” to Cuba—among them the popular “people-to-people” travel for individuals and tour groups. In 2016, Obama authorized the restoration of commercial air flights and cruise ship visits to Cuba.
Since then, more than 3 million travelers from the U.S. have visited the island. Last year, more than half of the approximately 620,000 visitors arrived via Carnival Cruise liners, Royal Caribbean and other cruise ships.
In June, however, the Trump administration banned cruise liners from docking in Cuba, immediately curtailing the ability of hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens who had already booked trips from traveling to the island. As part of Trump’s continuing effort to roll back Obama’s policy of positive engagement, the administration also eliminated “people-to-people” tours, sowing significant confusion among potential travelers as to how they can legally visit Cuba in the future.
“As a result, the number of Americans traveling to Cuba this year is projected to plummet by half, due to the policies of their own government,” according to Sen. Leahy. “And the thousands of private Cuban entrepreneurs, the taxi drivers, the Airbnb renters, restaurants, and shops that depend on American customers are struggling to survive.”
The proposed “Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act of 2019” would effectively lift all restrictions on traveling to Cuba, where and how much money U.S. citizens can spend there, and even taking an actual vacation to the island, which is currently banned by law. It states that “the President may not prohibit or otherwise restrict travel to or from Cuba by United States citizens or legal residents, or any of the transactions incident to such travel.”
Ending all restrictions on travel to Cuba, the legislation advises, would "pose no threat to the security of the United States," and would "advance United States national interests in the hemisphere; and foster free enterprise and democracy in Cuba.”
“Every single American should have the freedom to travel as they see fit. Yet the travel ban deliberately punishes the American people—our very best ambassadors—and prevents them from engaging directly with the Cuban people,” noted Rep. McGovern. “It’s time for us to listen to the majority of Americans, Cuban-Americans, and Cubans who do not support the travel ban, and get rid of it once and for all.”