Congress panel votes to loosen Cuba travel rules

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - People living in the United States could travel to Cuba more often and visit a broader list of family members under legislation approved by a congressional panel on Tuesday.

A House of Representatives appropriations panel embraced the liberalized travel initiative, which faces several more legislative steps over the next few months and likely would be opposed by the Bush administration.

Under a proposal that funds several federal agencies next year including the Treasury Department, which oversees Cuba travel and trade restrictions, travelers would be able to visit close relatives in Cuba once a year, instead of the current once-every-three-years restriction.

The list of eligible family members U.S. residents could visit in Cuba would grow from immediate relatives to include first-cousins, uncles and aunts.

“This is not a concession to the Cuban government. This is a concession to Cuban Americans who keep asking for it,” said Rep. Jose Serrano, the chairman of the appropriations panel that is advancing the legislation.

“There is no reason to place harsh restrictions on those who simply wish to visit close family members,” he added, detailing existing impediments for visiting sick relatives in Cuba.

The legislation, which could clear the House next month, also would further normalize U.S. agriculture trade with Cuba by removing an obstacle that forces Cuban importers to prepay all shipments, instead of when the commodities are delivered.

Similar travel and trade measures have been offered in Congress in the past, only to fail in the face of White House opposition.

The United States has imposed strict trade and travel restrictions on Cuba since the 1960s to punish the Communist-run island.

Reporting by Richard Cowan, editing by Philip Barbara