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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

House bill lessens restrictions for travel to Cuba

Ofelia Schutte's uncle was on his deathbed in Cuba in 2006, but a U.S. law prohibited her from being there for him.

Cuban-Americans like Schutte may have more opportunities to visit family under a new U.S. House of Representatives bill that passed Wednesday.

If the wide-range spending bill becomes a law, it will extend the list of family members who Cuban-Americans are allowed to visit in Cuba, and it will allow them to visit once a year for an unlimited period. It will also permit them to spend up to $170 per day on travel expenses.

Under the current policy put in place by former President George W. Bush in 2004, Cuban-Americans can visit family every three years for up to 14 days per visit. They can spend up to $50 per day on travel expenses.

If the propopsed bill becomes makes it past the Senate, Cuban-Americans could visit aunts, uncles and first cousins in addition to those they are currently allowed to visit - parents, grandparents, grandchildren, siblings, spouses and children.

The House bill, H.R. 1105, passed with a vote of 245-178.

The U.S. Senate is scheduled to vote on the bill today, and President Barack Obama, who has been a proponent of easing restrictions with Cuba, will make the final decision.

Carlos Frias, UF alumnus and author of the memoir about his visit to Cuba entitled "Take Me with You," said the proposed bill would allow the Cuban-Americans of this generation to know their roots.

"For the people who want and need to see their close family, it really is a humanitarian measure," he said.

However, for Frias, visiting Cuba came with mixed emotions.

Frias was nervous to approach his father about a work assignment he had just received in Cuba. This was because his father, who had been jailed by Fidel Castro's government for political activism, strongly opposed the idea of returning to the country.

"For me and I think for many Cuban-Americans of my generation, there's still an ideological barrier," Frias said.

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"I carry the history of my parents who saw and endured terrible things. That may not be how Cuba treated me, but it's how Cuba treated them," he said.

Andrew Ruiz, president of the Cuban-American Student Association at UF, said a lot of members have visited their families in Cuba.

He has never been to the country, but he would like to see where his parents and grandparents grew up.

However, his family doesn't want him to visit, he said.

His grandfather told him it would be "a slap in the face to them" to return while the Castros are in power.

Carmen Diana Deere, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at UF and an expert on Cuba, said travel restrictions were imposed when the trade embargo was placed on Cuba's government under Fidel Castro in the 1960s.

The American government didn't want visitors from the U.S. helping the Cuban economy.

"That's the rationale, but it hasn't worked," she said.

Instead, it slowed down the rate of economic growth in the U.S. and made trade more difficult.

"(The bill) is certainly positive because the previous regulations were so restrictive that, in my opinion, it was ridiculous," she said.

Ofelia Schutte, who was born in Cuba and has lived in the U.S. for almost 50 years, said that when Bush passed restrictions, "(it) was a huge violation of human rights."

Schutte has second cousins in Cuba. Her immediate family died or left the country over the years, she said.

It's important to her to see her family, not just communicate with them through e-mail, she said.

"It is often underrated how important it is to be able to hug a person or touch a person or be physically present with them when you care about them," she said.

UF freshman Shirley Rodriguez and her mom, Maria Elena Crespo, agreed that there is a need to spend time with the about 120 family members they have in Cuba.

Rodriguez and Crespo were born in Cuba and have lived in the U.S. for about 13 years.

Crespo and Rodriguez have visited Cuba together three times since they left.

Rodriguez said they wanted to go more often, but they couldn't under law.

They visited in 2006, so they couldn't return for the next two years to visit Crespo's mother, who has thyroid cancer.

"Those three years felt like we were being punished for something that wasn't even our fault, so it's a relief to know that we are being released of a burden," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez would also make use of the unlimited trip time that is being proposed, she said.

If the legislation passes, she hopes to soon visit Cuba for about a month and spend time with her newborn cousin.

"Honestly, there's no point going for 14 days because you're spending $2,000 (on travel costs)," she said.

Crespo said she plans to go twice a year if the proposed law passes.

"We cannot change anything political, but we have our family," Crespo said.

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