June 30, 2005

Senate rejects attempt to ease Cuba travel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Wednesdayrejected a proposal to ease American travel restrictions toCuba that would have allowed a Cuban-American veteran of theIraq war to visit his ill son.

A majority of senators supported the idea to open travel toCuba when humanitarian concerns were at play, voting 60-35 forthe measure, but under a Senate agreement, two-thirds ofsenators, or 67, were needed to win passage of the measure.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, proposed thelegislation, attached to an unrelated spending bill, to helpSgt. Carlos Lazo travel to Havana to visit his 16-year-old son.It would also have helped others in Lazo's situation.

Dorgan said it was unforgivable that an Iraq war veteranwas being barred from visiting his sick son.

Sen. John Ensign, a Nevada Republican, countered that itwas "a good thing" that hundreds of millions of U.S. dollarswere not flowing into Cuba because of travel restrictions.

Lazo, who fled Cuba on a raft in 1992, according to an aideto Dorgan, was deployed to Iraq in March, 2004. The decoratedsoldier returned to the United States last June.

Last year, the Bush administration tightened rules ontravel to Cuba, allowing people to visit from the United Statesonce every three years instead of annually. The move was meantto cut U.S. dollars being spent in Cuba, which has beensubjected to U.S. economic sanctions for more than 40 years.

Under the rule, Lazo will not be able to travel to Cubauntil April, 2006.

In a telephone interview with Reuters from Seattle, wherehe is now stationed, Lazo said he still held out hope that theU.S. House of Representatives would come to his aid.

He said his son, who has been suffering from high feversthat might be related to a bacterial infection or meningitis,was being sent home from the hospital so he can get a morenutritious diet while continuing on medication.

Before his amendment was defeated, Dorgan said theopposition was "all about Florida politics. Everybody in thischamber knows it."

Florida has been an important state to President Bush inthe past two presidential elections. It has a large,conservative Cuban-American community that wants to maintainstrict sanctions against Cuban President Fidel Castro.