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Senators Work To Open Up Travel For Americans To Cuba


Several members of Congress recently back from Cuba are taking steps to further ease a decades-old embargo on the communist island. But even as they announced new legislation to open up travel for Americans, Cuba's president is talking tough. Raul Castro says he wants the U.S. to give up the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and to end the embargo. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: President Obama has done what he could to ease travel restrictions on Americans who want to go to Cuba. Now Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, is trying to get rid of the travel ban altogether.


SENATOR JEFF FLAKE: Some will say that we ought to receive something in exchange for this - that if we're giving up something, then we ought to get some concession from the Cuban government. We all need to remember that this is a sanction or a prohibition on Americans, not Cubans.

KELEMEN: And that's why Flake thinks this attempt to lift the travel ban will work.


FLAKE: This is something that we think will move ahead. We have four Republicans, four Democrats as original cosponsors. We expect to add more in the coming days - many more on both sides.

KELEMEN: But while he and his cosponsors try to increase contacts with the communist island, the country's president sounded like he was upping the ante. Raul Castro says the U.S. and Cuba have just started a long process toward more normal ties.


PRESIDENT RAUL CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).

KELEMEN: "But this will not be possible," Castro says, "while the blockade still exists and while they don't give back," in Castro's words, "the territory illegally occupied by the Guantanamo Naval Base." On Capitol Hill, Senator John McCain of Arizona rejects those demands.


SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: We just saw the true nature of the Castros - want reparations, want Guantanamo back. This is the true nature of the Castro brothers. It will not change until they have an opportunity to meet Karl Marx.

KELEMEN: McCain, who calls the Castros hard-core communists, says he can't imagine giving back Guantanamo. Tomas Bilbao of the Cuba Study Group, which advocates for closer ties, doesn't think Castro was trying to make the Guantanamo issue a prerequisite for reestablishing diplomatic ties. And Bilbao says no one should have been surprised by the tone of Castro's remarks since he made them at a regional summit.

TOMAS BILBAO: Where some of his partners such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador or others who are ideological adversaries of the United States - so perhaps a little bit more concerned about Cuba's normalization with the United States.

KELEMEN: Guantanamo has long been a source of tension, Bilbao says. Cuba never cashes the annual rent checks, nor does it recognize a lease dating back to 1903, decades before the Cuban revolution.

BILBAO: Just like the embargo, it's been another talking point - another excuse for the Cuban government to point to to help point out the United States as an aggressor - as an imperialist power.

KELEMEN: Bilbao says he's read persuasive arguments for the U.S. to give up the base as well as some to maintain it. But he believes that's a long-term discussion for U.S. policymakers. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki echoed that, saying the focus now is on restoring diplomatic ties.


JEN PSAKI: That would be things like opening up embassies in our respective countries so that we may work toward the long-standing list of issues that have festered over the last half-century and are more about normalization.

KELEMEN: And the White House says Guantanamo hasn't been part of the discussion so far. Spokesperson Josh Earnest adds that while President Obama wants to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, he has no plans to give up the naval base. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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