By Mary Murray, NBC News Producer
HAVANA – Don't start packing those suitcases to Cuba just yet.
Although a congressional committee voted Wednesday to repeal the law that prohibits American tourists from traveling to the communist-run island, the real fight to change the decades-old ban – which will take place in the full House of Representatives later this month – is likely to be a real humdinger.
HR4645, titled the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act, was passed by the House Agriculture Committee in a 25 to 20 vote. In addition to lifting the travel ban and opening a long sought-after market to the U.S. airline industry, the legislation is designed to let U.S. food producers sell directly to Cuba. (That's why it went through the Agriculture Committee.)
Ten years ago Congress exempted food sales from the trade embargo. But Cuban importers must pay up front, in cash, and conduct the transaction through a third-country bank. The new law would permit Havana to deal directly with American banks, which would lower costs for the Cubans and make sales easier for the Americans.
And that's what is likely to create some post-July 4 fireworks.
Passionate arguments for and against
On one side of the aisle you'll hear arguments from farm, travel and business groups keenly eyeing the Cuban market. On the other side Cuban American legislators and others linked to the pro-embargo lobby will oppose any easing until western-style democracy supplants Cuba's one-party state.
Neither side will be short of passion.
Influential groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce think HR4645 would generate income for American industries and ports at a time when the economy could use the help. Chamber leaders say that the legislation is all about "advocating for free enterprise."
They point to a recent Texas A&M University study which suggests that the embargo may be costing the American economy more than $1 billion a year in lost commerce and jobs. The report, released in March 2010, argues that an open trade policy with Cuba would generate $365 million in direct sales and create 6,000 new jobs inside the U.S.
But opponents not only argue that those estimates are bloated but that there's also much more than capital and jobs at stake.
Cuba's human rights record, they argue, is reason enough to keep the 50-year-old embargo in place. They say the regime should not be rewarded with new revenue sources at the same moment that organizations like Amnesty International are condemning what they call Cuba's "climate of fear."
In a report released just hours before HR4645 passed the Agriculture Committee, Amnesty International blasted the Cuban legal system, describing how the island's "vague" laws allow the state to detain and prosecute hundreds of government critics.
The report declared an "urgent need for reform to make all human rights a reality for all Cubans." The group urged changes to allow "freedom of expression, end harassment of dissidents, release all prisoners of conscience and allow free exchange of information through the internet and other media."
Cuban take on it
There's an irony, though, in Amnesty's position, because the democracy-seeking political opposition in Cuba has generally stood for ending the embargo. They argue that the policy not only causes hardship for ordinary people but also gives the regime something to blame for its own failures.
In fact, Cuba's most prominent activists recently sent an open letter to the U.S. Congress backing HR4645, contending that the new law would "alleviate food shortages" and give Americans back the "right to travel freely."
Letter signers included Yoani Sanchez, an activist blogger, Guillermo Farinas, who is on a prolonged hunger strike demanding freedom for Cuba's political prisoners (and is said to be close to death), Padre Jose Conrado, a Catholic priest who has been long known as a harsh critic of the Cuban system, and dozens of others who have been jailed for opposing the government.
The opposition, however, is not totally in accord over the issue. Ariel Sigler, a former prisoner of conscience, put his name on a second letter that came out a week later against the reforms. His name was among 492 signatures by mostly unknown persons purporting to also be members of Cuba's small opposition community.
"To be benevolent with the dictatorship would mean solidarity with the oppressors of the Cuban nation," stated the letter.
Just paroled from prison due to poor health, Sigler served seven years of a 25-year sentence for treason. The former boxer went to prison a healthy man but left paralyzed from the waist down. His family blames the malnutrition he suffered while behind bars and is petitioning Cuban authorities to allow him to travel to Miami for medical attention.