New legislation could dramatically reduce U.S. citizens' ability to travel to Cuba

Blame it on Jay-Z and Beyonce.

Since January of 2011, when President Obama reopened categories of travel to increase people-to-people contacts, more and more Americans without family connections in Cuba have traveled to the island. The president's directive restored rights for scholars and students to travel there for coursework that offered academic credit, and provided “specific licensing of educational exchanges not involving academic study pursuant to a degree program under the auspices of an organization that sponsors and organizes people-to-people programs.”

Organizations like the Florida League of Women Voters, the Center For Global Justice, and the Tampa Chamber of Commerce are just a few of the many groups that have taken advantage of the liberalized travel rules. The expanded rules also created new revenue for the Tampa International Airport, which claims that its five weekly flights generate more than $650,000 a year in revenue.

But that all may come crashing down if a bill proposed by Jacksonville Republican Ander Crenshaw gains traction in the House of Representatives. Earlier this month, the House Appropriations Subcommittee, which Crenshaw chairs, approved a budget bill that includes an amendment that would rewrite the rules for people-to-people travel to Cuba.

“This is the Jay-Z, Beyonce Bill,” Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) told Politico earlier this month. “Absolutely [it’s a response to the trip], and it’s playing to the audience in Miami.”

Crenshaw admitted that his legislation was in fact ignited by the celebrity music couple's well publicized journey, telling the D.C. publication that their trip "was an example of how the guidelines are not being enforced," adding "I think that if we’re going to say that we have this policy in place that relates to travel in Cuba that it ought to be enforced and that becomes a grey area where they’re probably not really following the guidelines.”

The actual legislation reads as such: 

SEC. 124. None of the funds made available in this Act may be used to approve, license, facilitate, authorize, or otherwise allow, whether by general or specific license, travel-related or other transactions incident to non-academic educational exchanges described in section 515.565(b)(2) of title 31, Code of Federal Regulations.  

Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee followed suit, adding new language about travel to Cuba in its FY 2014 Financial Services Appropriations bill.

(c) The Secretary of the Treasury shall promulgate regulations authorizing by general license the travel related and other transactions ordinarily incident to professional research by full-time professionals and their staff; attendance at professional meetings or conferences in Cuba if the sponsoring organization is a United States professional organization; and the organization and management of professional meetings and conferences in Cuba if the sponsoring organization is a United States professional organization, if such travel is related to disaster prevention, emergency preparedness, and natural resource protection, including for fisheries, coral reefs, and migratory species.

Nobody has been more critical of the Obama administration's people-to-people policy on travel to Cuba than Florida's Marco Rubio, who was denouncing such travel as a farce a year-and-a-half before Beyonce and Jay-Z's trip. In a December 2011 speech on the Senate floor, Rubio said, " I know someone has sold you a bill of goods that this people-to-people travel is a good idea and will further democracy and freedom in Cuba. I get that. You’re not going to change your mind, but at least examine how this is being implemented because this is a charade. This is an embarrassment. These people are getting licenses to conduct this outrageous tourism which, quite frankly, borders on indoctrination of Americans by Castro government officials."

(UPDATE:)Tampa area Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Castor has become the most outspoken member of the Florida delegation in denouncing the 50-year plus U.S. economic embargo against the communist island. Castor called for the sanctions to end after visiting Cuba (ironically at nearly the same time as Beyonce and Jay-Z) earlier this spring. In an e-mail sent to CL this afternoon, the Congresswoman denounced the idea of making it harder for Americans to travel to Cuba:

“America should be encouraging meaningful exchanges between our two countries, not eliminating people to people travel. In fact, it is difficult to understand why the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee would restrict the constitutional right to travel and impose additional costly regulatory burdens. Americans are free to travel anywhere else in the world, including countries on the State Department’s State Sponsor of Terrorism list. No rationale exists to singularly prohibit travel to Cuba. The agency responsible for enforcement of travel restrictions and sanctions has other, more pressing responsibilities in real “hot spots” around the world. They should be able to focus on bad actors around the globe — like Iran and Syria — rather than red tape paperwork for Americans who wish to exercise their right to travel. The travel ban should not be made more difficult. To the contrary, it should be lifted or, at the very least, the United States should all allow permissible travel to be carried out under a general license. Streamlining travel would save resources at a time of sequester and significant federal belt-tightening.

The restrictive policy would hurt our small businesses, the tourism industry and Tampa International Airport that are all benefiting from the opportunities created by people to people travel to Cuba. I appreciate the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce’s opposition to this harmful amendment. With President Obama’s help, we were able to eliminate travel restrictions in previous years and we intend to do so again, especially with the outspoken support of our business community and neighbors who seek to move beyond the Cold War mentality of the past and push economic and human rights reforms.”