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Brent Gibadlo's ATRIP lobbies to lift the Cuba travel ban
CubaNews / August 2003

By Larry Luxner

Washington, home to no less than a dozen organizations aimed at ending the U.S. embargo against Cuba, now has yet another lobby in its midst: the one-month-old Association of Travel Related Industry Professionals (ATRIP).

But Brent Gibadlo, the group’s executive director, says ATRIP is different.

“We’re a business organization, so we don’t receive any grant funding,” he told CubaNews. “Other Cuba groups cover a wide spectrum, including the embargo, human rights and other issues. Our interest is much more U.S.-focused. We are setting up an efficient, very focused trade association that fills a specific niche that has not been there. I think businessmen will see this as a wise investment.”

He adds: “Our goal is to eliminate the ban that prohibits American citizens from traveling to Cuba. That’s why ATRIP exists.”

Gibadlo, 28, is the former legislative director for Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), co-chairman of the House Cuba Working Group. He announced the birth of ATRIP at a Jun. 26 news conference, describing the organization as “a voice to professionals in the travel industry who support the Constitutional right to freedom of travel for all Americans.”

As such, ATRIP has hired the Washington law firm of Patton Boggs LLP for an undisclosed sum, and has begun aggressively lobbying members of Congress to support an end to the travel ban.

A Jul. 15 seminar co-sponsored by ATRIP, the Center for International Policy, USA*En-gage and The Lexington Institute attracted some 200 people eager to hear Flake and three other lawmakers explain why they support a change in Washington’s Cuba policy.

“Liberals and conservatives see this issue differently, but this is such a clear-cut example of government infringing on your personal freedoms,” said Gibadlo, and Jeff [Flake] is about as conservative as you can get.”

A graduate of South Carolina’s College of Charleston, Gibadlo joined Flake’s staff in January 2001 after working two years for another conservative Republican, Rep. Mark Sanford — now governor of South Carolina.

“As a member of the House International Relations Committee, Sanford took a trip to Cuba and came back with the revelation that our policy wasn’t working after 40 years. He was the first Republican to offer the amendment that would [deny funding to] the Treasury Department to enforce the travel ban.”

That’s how Gibadlo got interested in Cuba — a passion that’s only intensified with time.

Said Flake: “Few people on Capitol Hill know more about Cuba than Brent. He hand-led this issue for us and did a great job.”

Gibadlo, speaking with CubaNews last month at ATRIP’s 8th-floor headquarters in a Washington office building, said “my greatest claim to fame was my Cuba work, but during my interview with Flake, I was nervous to bring it up. The congressman then told me how much he hated Fidel Castro, and that we should lift the embargo tomorrow.”

Gibadlo said his old boss “never pushed for a change of policy because we thought Castro deserved a reward. I think the best way to cause Castro pain is to lift the travel ban. That’s exactly what he doesn’t want.”

Gibadlo left Flake’s staff a year ago to attend graduate school. He’s currently earning an MBA at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and will soon turn the day-to-day operations of ATRIP over to someone else.

Asked why the word Cuba isn’t in the organization’s name, Gibadlo replied: “If we put Cuba in the title, we’d look like a foreign-policy group.” Besides, he said, “we’re not strictly Cuba-focused. Our members are interested in the ability of Americans to travel anywhere, though Cuba obviously is the No. 1 example of that right.”

Membership in ATRIP costs anywhere from $500 to $7,500 — depending on the size of the organization or company hoping to join — and is open to any group or individual who supports “the lifting of unjustified barriers to the right of Americans to travel freely.”

Initial supporters of ATRIP include the American Society of Travel Agents (with 20,000 members); the National Tour Operators Association (2,000 members) and various airline charter companies such as Marazul Charters Inc., Cuba Travel Services, ABC Charters Inc. and Xael Charters Inc.

“We wanted tour operators right away because they are the folks who benefit immediately from lifting the ban,” said Gibadlo. “They can start tour packages even without investment regulations repealed. But we’re also in the process of talking to hotels, airlines and cruise lines.”

María Teresa Aral, vice-president of ABC Charters, told CubaNews she decided to support ATRIP because “it’s the right thing to do” — even though the charters would undoubtedly suffer once all Americans are able to travel to Cuba directly.

“Once the travel ban is lifted, we would eventually lose the exclusivity we have right now, but that would take time while they come up with bilateral agreements,” said Aral, whose airline moved over 30,000 passengers between Miami and Havana, Santiago de Cuba and Holguín last year. “As a businesswoman, I’m looking at our future after we accomplish the lobbying effort, and there will always be opportunities for charter flights to all the islands, including Cuba.”

In late July, ATRIP also convinced the United States Tour Operators Association to come onboard.

Bob Whitley, president of USTOA, says his association speaks for 800 tour operators who together move 10 million Americans a year on vacation packages worth over $9 billion. USTOA also has 58 corporate members who represent a combined 140 airlines, hotel chains and other brands.

“We strongly believe that tourism is the way for people to learn about other countries, and that politics should not play a role in this,” said Whitley, who has never been to Cuba. “From a business point of view, Cuba of course would be a major tourist destination for Americans, so from that standpoint, we’d love to see the travel ban lifted.”

In the meantime, Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has gotten tough with Americans who violate the travel ban.

According to Gibadlo, OFAC Director Richard Newcomb declined an invitation to speak at the Jul. 15 conference, which featured Joan Slote — a 75-year-old woman who has been threatened with nearly $10,000 in fines for taking an unauthorized bicycle trip to Cuba.

“The tougher OFAC cracks down on people traveling [to Cuba] illegally, the easier our job gets, since more people become aware of a bad law,” said Gibadlo. “This case of a grandmother who went on a bicycle tour and now has her social-security check withheld to pay the fine just adds fuel to the fire.”

In mid-October, ATRIP will present a 3-day “U.S.-Cuba Travel Conference” in Cancún, Mexico, to push its agenda; 50 to 100 travel professionals are expected to attend.

David Cibrian, a San Antonio attorney who spoke at the ATRIP conference, calls himself a “longtime Republican and first-generation Cuban-American” who strongly opposes the current U.S. policy on Cuba.

“There was a lot of skepticism about getting the food and medicine legislation passed, but finally it did pass. I think the same is true of the travel ban,” he told CubaNews. “There’s a growing sentiment on Capitol Hill that any foreign policy that’s been in place 40 years and hasn’t achieved its objective is a failure.”

As to how to achieve that, Cibrian says trying to lobby hardline Florida lawmakers like Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Díaz-Balart is a complete waste of time.

“Their votes are not worth pursuing,” he said, advising ATRIP to focus instead on “non-Florida members of the House and Senate who don’t have that captive constituency.”

Gibadlo agrees: “For instance, I think Bob Menendez might be tough, but there’s a host of other Democrats in New Jersey who have all supported the travel ban, and maybe they have Cuban-Americans in their districts who think the ban should be lifted.”

Last year, when Flake’s measure to lift the Cuba travel ban came to a vote in the House, it passed by a margin of 262-167, compared to a 240-186 vote in 2001. Yet in 2001, the Senate never got around to considering it, and in 2002, the measure was stripped out of the Treasury-Postal bill in conference committee.

This time, says Gibadlo, “we’re lobbying for one co-sponsorship at a time, and obviously focusing on Republican members, since that’s where the bulk of our votes are.”

Brian Alexander, former executive director of the now-defunct Cuba Policy Foundation, says he hopes ATRIP can do what CPF didn’t.

“This organization can succeed and move forward, irrespective of what went on with CFP. But they’ll have to generate political results.” He insists that CPF folded not because grant money dried up — as has been previously reported by CubaNews — but because “we believed it would be very difficult to ach-ieve results in the current political climate.”

Alexander added: “The House leadership will resist any efforts to ease sanctions. But I think a group like this representing industry can at least show there is support in the U.S. for a change in policy, and when that support does not lead to change in policy, I hope that ATRIP will be able to illustrate that it’s a minority of powerful lawmakers who are subverting the majority will.”

The House is likely to take up the bill in the first week of September, with the Senate following shortly after. Gibadlo predicts it could win 275 votes in the House and maybe 60 votes in the Senate, though he discounts the possibility that President Bush — who has never vetoed any bill — would veto this one if passes both houses of Congress.

So what if Gibadlo gets what he wants and Americans are suddenly free to fly to Havana?

“Our model is to put ourselves out of business, realistically within two to three years,” he said. “But even if the Cuba ban were lifted, there are still travel restrictions to other countries, so we might stick around.”

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