Supporters of unrestricted Cuban American travel and remittances to Cuba demanded Wednesday that Congress reject a bid by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart to again put a tight limit on the trips and cash assistance allowed.

Congressional staffers said House-Senate negotiations on the massive government spending bill that includes the Diaz-Balart measure were put on hold while the two chambers fight over other critical bills that must be approved in coming days.

But Democrats on Capitol Hill are unlikely to stage a strong fight against the Florida Republican’s measure because they don’t want to be seen as blocking critical bills — some linked to job creation — over the far less important Cuba travel issue attached to legislation, they noted.

They added that Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat who will have a loud voice in the final draft of the spending bill, has long supported the U.S. embargo on Cuba.

Diaz-Balart’s measure was approved in June in a House committee vote — with no objections — as a rider to a Treasury spending bill. That bill was later joined with eight other spending bills into the one massive $1 trillion measure now being negotiated.

But by Wednesday, supporters of President Barack Obama’s decision in 2009 to lift virtually all restrictions on Cuban American travel and remittances to the island were mobilizing to demand the rider be stripped out of the bill’s final version.

Cuban-American callers to talk shows on Miami’s Spanish-language radio stations were overwhelmingly and strongly in favor of unlimited travel, with many arguing that Washington has no right to limit their visits with relatives in Cuba.

A digital poll in Diario de Cuba, a blog usually critical of the Castro government, showed about 60 percent of respondents opposed the Diaz-Balart rider and 35 percent favored it.

The Cuba Study Group, made up of largely moderate Cuban American business people, said Obama’s travel policies had helped Cubans reduce their dependence on their government and allowed some to start their own mini-businesses.

To reverse that policy now “is to condemn Cuban families to continued dependence on the Cuban state” and could delay “the kind of transition most of us would like to see in Cuba,” the Washington-based group added in a statement.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat who favors increased U.S. engagement with Cuba, urged the House Democrats and Republicans negotiating the spending bill to strip the Diaz-Balart rider out of the final version.

“We must not go back to the days when sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and grandsons and granddaughters were unable to visit sick or dying relatives in Cuba,” Castor wrote in a letter to the House conference committee members.

Obama declared Wednesday that he remains committed to “protecting the ability of Cuban Americans to support their families in Cuba through unrestricted family visits and remittances,” but did not repeat his threat in July to veto the Diaz-Balart rider.

His comment came at the end of a statement praising the late Laura Pollán, founder of Cuba’s dissident Ladies in White. The National Endowment for Democracy posthumously awarded Pollán its Democracy Service Medal on Wednesday.

Diaz-Balart’s rider would restore the limits that President George W. Bush imposed in 2008: one “family reunification” trip every three years, remittances capped at $1,200 per year and a tight definition of “family” that, for example, rules out uncles.

But because the spending bill is for a one-year budget, the practical effect is to limit travel to one trip in 2012, according to Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the pro-sanctions U.S.-Cuba Democracy political action committee in Washington.

It also would limit remittances to $1,200 a year, eroding a large source of revenue for the Cuban government while still allowing cash assistance that would amount to nearly 10 times the average income on the island, Claver-Carone added.

The new limits on travel and remittances would be “reasonable and humanitarian,” he wrote in a blog post, and the one trip per year would equal the limit under the Clinton administration.



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