Monday’s official resumption of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba was met with full throated denunciations from Republican elected officials up and down the Sunshine State, and David Jolly, the latest entrant into the GOP 2016 Senate race, was no exception.
“Look, I oppose the president’s decision,” Jolly told Florida Politics yesterday regarding President Obama’s diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba that he announced last December. “I think it has been too aggressive, too quickly.”
But there is one place where Jolly has recently shown some flexibility regarding the Communist island, and that’s in allowing for expanding private travel for Americans.
“I do think that travel is the one piece that we can begin to effectively move on and see where it develops between the two countries in terms of bringing the Cuban people together with the American people,” he says. “The process in Congress right now is that there has been a series of budget votes to restrict funding for implementing the president’s plans. So I have voted to restrict funding for the president’s plan to open an embassy, for normalizing trade with the Cuban government, or for trade with the intelligence services of Cuba.”
But on travel?
“I have actually embraced the current private travel allowances, and have voted recently to allow to expand it.”
Specifically, Jolly voted on an amendment sponsored by South Carolina Republican Mark Sanford and California Democrat Barbara Lee that would strike newly proposed language creating travel restrictions from the FY16 Transportation-Housing and Urban Development (THUD) Appropriations bill. The legislation was supported by the U.S. Chambers of Commerce, and a host of agricultural based organizations, but fell on a 247-176 vote.
Jolly was one of just 18 Republicans to support the measure.
In December, President Obama loosened restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba, allowing Americans to go under a general license instead of on a case-by-case basis. But it’s still not as easy as going to Expedia and booking a trip to Havana. Any travel still must be for one of 12 official purposes, and tourism isn’t one of them. According to the Treasury Department, “the traveler’s schedule of activities must not include free time or recreation in excess of that consistent with a full-time schedule.”
“Congress is clearly lagging behind public opinion on the issue,” says Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, Jolly’s congressional colleague on the eastern side of Tampa Bay. “When you ask the person on the street, should the American government continue to block you from traveling to Cuba without going through all the bureaucracy, when you can travel to North Korea and Syria?”
“We have tried this current policy — we have prohibited travel for about 50 years, and it hasn’t worked,” said U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, back in January. He made those comments while introducing a bill in the Senate he is sponsoring that would remove the travel restrictions. “It’s time to allow Americans to travel freely to Cuba,” he said.
In recent years, some of the biggest critics of the Castro-led Cuban government have come around to support eliminating the travel ban.
Tampa attorney Ralph Fernandez is a longtime anti-Castro activist who has represented former political prisoners of the Cuban government. Two years ago he called for the repeal of the travel ban.
“The First Amendment is on the side of ending the Travel Act,” Fernandez said at a conference in Tampa discussing Cuba. “It would bring a massive influx of dollars to the Cubans.” But, he added, “it won’t bring about change,” adding that between 1977 and 1982 there was no U.S. ban on travel to the island, and it didn’t result in any change with the Cuban government.
Jolly’s support on travel is applauded by Tampa business officials who have been working on building relationships with the Cuban people.
“David obviously sees the benefits to Florida and Cuba,” says Bill Carlson, president of the Tampa-based communications firm Tucker/Hall. “He could lead this out of partisanship and into a meaningful dialogue that leads to greater change. We need to find ways to support the growing number of entrepreneurs in Cuba. Travel will help develop the relationships needed to do that.”