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Howard Berman/Richard Lugar Bipartisan Team Call for End to Cuba Travel Ban

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Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Richard Lugar (R-IN) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) have jointly written a compelling case to end the travel ban for all Americans desiring to go to Cuba.

In fact, their piece, titled "Lift the Ban -- Let Americans Visit Cuba" really calls for ending travel restrictions on Americans going anywhere since Cuba is the only place in the world where America's democratic government restricts the travel freedom of its citizens.

It is a remarkable but true fact that the US government cannot stop regular Americans from traveling to North Korea, Burma, Iran, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Congo, or any other complicated place in the world -- except the one spot where the Cold War still freezes time -- Cuba.

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The Lugar-Berman piece reflects a sensible bipartisan realism about the fact that five decades of an embargo have dramatically hurt US interests and have only perpetuated a dysfunctional status quo in US-Cuba relations.

President Obama constantly calls for serious bipartisanship in national security matters -- and he can pluck this Lugar-Berman prize off the tree easily if he has the will (and time on his overcrowded calendar). The House bill to end the travel ban to Cuba has been led by Congressman Bill Delahunt (D-MA) on the Dem side and Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake (R-AZ) who often says that it's supposed to be Communist governments, not Democratic ones, that impose restrictions on their citizen's choices to travel. The House Bill now has 180 cosponsors comprised of both Republicans and Democrats.

The companion Senate bill has 34 Senate cosponsors. Informal whip counts put the House bill at 205 votes -- within striking distance of the 218 needed, and between 61-64 in the Senate.

But thus far Barack Obama's team continues to condition any further openings to Cuba with a requirement that Cuba begin to demonstrate key political reforms on top of the fact that Obama's presidency has done the ironic thing of opening up travel for a "class" of Americans (those with Cuban relatives) while excluding all other Americans from that legal privilege -- I would actually say, "legal right". This exclusion of some but not all is something Obama should not want too long on his legacy sheet.

Lugar and Berman open:

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U.S. law lets American citizens travel to any country on earth, friend or foe -- with one exception: Cuba. It's time for us to scrap this anachronistic ban, imposed during one of the chilliest periods of the Cold War.

Legislation to abolish restrictions on travel to Cuba has been introduced in both chambers of Congress. And on Thursday the House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing examining the rationale for the travel ban.

This ban has prevented contact between Cubans and ordinary Americans, who serve as ambassadors for the democratic values we hold dear. Such contact would help break Havana's chokehold on information about the outside world. And it would contribute to improving the image of the United States, particularly in Latin America, where the U.S. embargo on Cuba remains a centerpiece of anti-Washington grievances.

While opponents argue that repealing the travel ban would indicate approval of the Cuban human rights record, many human rights organizations -- among them Freedom House and Human Rights Watch -- have called for abolishing travel restrictions.

They go on to make the same point, namely " "isolation from outside visitors only strengthens the Castro regime," that former AEI neoconservative staffer and current Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw "Radek" Sikorski made in his own 2005 essay on Cuba in National Review. Bush Institute for Public Policy Director and former G.W. Bush administration Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy James Glassman has also argued that the travel ban and embargo undermine American interests.

It is through people to people exchange that both Cubans and Americans will become exposed to each other's worlds and political realities. They argue that more financial flow inside Cuba will strengthen the underground economy, a source of independence and potential liberalism inside Cuba.

Berman and Lugar state flat out with regard to the notion that restricting US travel to Cuba generates any leverage at all after five decades of failure on this track: "Conditionality is not leverage in this case."

The White House National Security Council staff reading this really should articulate a believable counter-point to Senator Lugar's and Chairman Berman's compelling argument if it is going to continue to 'cling to conditionality' before making further moves. What is the empirical basis for believing that putting Cuban responses before American interests will have any impact or makes sense?

Others who Barack Obama respects -- including former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State and Treasury George P. Shultz -- have said that both the travel ban and the embargo make no sense as foreign policy. Shultz has called the travel ban "lunacy".

There are not many occasions when there is such a large squad of Democrats and Republicans in the same space.

Howard Berman is on board. Richard Lugar is on board. Many others are as well. Call John Kerry -- and I bet he's on board too.

It's the only course that ultimately makes sense. As David Rothkopf said at a Council on Foreign Relations meeting just before this past year's Summit of the Americas, US-Cuba relations are the "Edsel of US foreign policy."

It's time for Barack Obama to wake up on this and realize that he and his team are the outliers in a hefty and healthy bipartisan move in the Latin America portfolio.

-- Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note