U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Monday that the United States’ travel ban against Cuba contradicts American ideals. Those ideals ought to be promoted abroad, Leahy said, by lifting the trade embargo against the Caribbean country.
Leahy delivered his remarks to a small group of reporters gathered at his Burlington office on the heels of his return to the United States after witnessing Americans on Aug. 14 raise their flag over an embassy in Cuba for the first time in 54 years.
Leahy accompanied Secretary of State John Kerry last weekend to Havana for the official opening of the U.S. Embassy. Leahy has led efforts in Congress to normalize relations with Cuba.
In his criticism of the travel ban, Leahy cited Sen. Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican who has long pushed for its end.
“I think Senator Flake, who is a Republican, said, as far as travel back and forth, he said, ‘I don’t mind if a communist country tells me that they won’t let me in. What I mind is if my country, a free country, tells me I can’t go to this other country, the only country in the world we have restrictions [against visiting].’
“We can go anywhere – Iran, we can go to North Korea, assuming they’ll let you in, but not Cuba,” Leahy said. “We should have students going back and forth, businesses going back and forth,” Leahy said.
The travel ban eased in January to now permit certain types of visits by United States citizens.
The United States government allows exemptions to the travel ban for United States citizens conducting any of 12 activities that include journalism, religious promotion and education.
One Vermont educator agreed with Leahy’s assessment that even this more permissive travel embargo affronts the freedoms Americans prize. The re-opening of the United States embassy last Friday promises a shift in that stance that he said Americans and Cubans alike should welcome.
“It’s not just about Cuba, and how this will change Cuba, it’s about our rights as U.S. citizens to travel freely,” University of Vermont music professor and director of Latin American and Caribbean Studies Alexander Stewart said. “I’ve always found it outrageous and offensive that our government could tell us we can’t go somewhere we wanted to go – that’s a real infringement, I think, on our rights.”
Leahy said that further progress toward normalization of Cuban relations with the United States may offer opportunities for Vermont’s farmers, and potentially its dairy farmers in particular. These effects are likely to be slight, however, owing to the island country’s small economy, Leahy said.
Leahy played an instrumental role in negotiations between the two countries leading up to last week’s events, and in December of last year he flew to Cuba as part of a small group that returned aid worker Alan Gross from a Cuban prison to U.S. soil.
Leahy touched on a number of other subjects during a 45-minute press conference Monday morning in downtown Burlington.
As the most senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Leahy said, he will secure funding to clean up pollution in Lake Champlain.
“I’ve always been able to get the money in the past, as long as I’m in the appropriations committee I’ll keep getting it,” he said.
Gov. Pete Shumlin and the Environmental Protection Agency announced plans last Friday to reduce by 34 percent the maximum daily amount of pollutants that may enter the lake.
Leahy also said he considers fellow Sen. Bernie Sanders one of only a few likely presidents among those in the race today.
“I’m very proud of Bernie, and I’ve told him that, and I’ve said so publicly,” Leahy said.
“I think there’s only two or three, maybe four people running now who are viable candidates for the presidency, and Bernie Sanders is one of them,” he said.
Leahy said his feelings toward Sanders would not alter his long-standing endorsement of Sanders’ primary opponent Hillary Clinton.