Sunny Havana? Don't Pack Bags Yet

US flag over Cuba map, 2-16-99
AP
CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst Pamela S. Falk teaches law at the City University of New York. She regularly travels to Cuba.

Looking forward to weekends sipping Cuba Libres and smoking cigars in Havana? Well, don't book the flight yet, but this week, both the U.S. Senate and House voted to cut the funding that allows the U.S. government to enforce the travel ban to Castro's Communist Cuba.

The bill, however, would not make travel legal. In fact, it would remain on the books as a felony to travel to Cuba illegally. But it does mean that Americans who go to Cuba on the sly might not be hassled at Customs coming back into the U.S.

This is the first time that a bill that eases travel to Cuba has gotten through both houses of Congress in identical language, making it closer than it has ever been to passage.

President Bush has threatened to veto the bill if this provision stays in. But there are hurdles to a veto - one being that the House and Senate bills are amendments to a huge Treasury Department funding bill that has lots of other issues that may have to be resolved. Stripping the bill of all of these add-ons may be what has to happen for postal workers their paychecks.

Nonetheless, the bill's passage sends a message to President Bush and his Cuba hands - Housing Secretary Mel Martinez and Secretary of State Colin Powell - that even the Republican-controlled Congress is ready to slug this one out.

In back channels in Washington and in Miami, several Cuban-American legislators and lobbyists believe that even if the bill got to the president's desk and he vetoed it -- that would be good for the president to show how tough he is on Cuba. Others believe that Mr. Bush's first veto would expend too much political capital on a vote that he does not need to win and would make him look weak.

This is presidential election season, and a tough policy on Cuba is perceived to be good for any candidate looking to secure the Florida vote -- as predictable as Castro condemning the United States for imperialism.

Joe Garcia, president of the powerful Cuban-American lobby group - the Cuban American National Foundation - is not worried. He told CBS News: "The Cuba travel bill either doesn't ever get to the president's desk or it does and he vetoes it -- on that we have a commitment from the president."

But in a slightly ominous note, he added, "If for any reason, a bill to allow Americans to travel freely to Cuba passed and he signed it, then it is simple: The president loses Florida."

"Same old arguments for lifting the embargo," said Ambassador Dennis Hays, the former State Department Cuba desk officer. "The bill is a back door to lifting the embargo because the advocates of better relations with Cuba cannot go through the front."

The legislation is seen as a major victory for the anti-embargo groups. Jody Frisch, the director of an anti-embargo organization, said, "Congress has sent a clear message by a decisive majority that they support Americans freedom to travel to Cuba. It is clear that after 40 years, our current policy of isolation has been a failure."

What about Florida? Some of the more active embargo-busting advocacy groups like the World Policy Institute's Cuba Project believe that the bill may pass this time, and that the White House is "out of touch" with where the vote on Cuba is today.

"President Bush could veto this and still win Florida," said Lissa Weinmann, Director of the project. "In fact, if you read the polls, it could actually help him, both with Cuban-Americans, who are split 50 - 50 on lifting the travel ban, and with other Florida voters, who overwhelmingly want to travel freely to Cuba."

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, points to the Republican-majority Senate vote of 59-36 as the will of the people.

"There has been a chorus of veto threat coming from the White House and the president is obviously not going to veto everything. The White House position is clearly aimed at a politics, and a political situation in Cuba, and he is not going to make his first veto one that restricts U.S. citizens' right to travel or an issue that is so obviously and blatantly political," Dorgan said.

The showdown is set. Cuba is always a hotspot and always a tricky issue for presidential candidates and we will shortly see how the winds are blowing in the Florida straits.