WASHINGTON — In the wake of the pope's historic visit to Cuba, the Clinton administration promised Monday to consider supporting legislation to alter the embargo on food and medicine to the Communist island.
The announcement by State Department spokesman James P. Rubin was welcomed by opponents of the embargo, who hailed his comments as an important first step toward lifting what they regard as a cruel burden on the Cuban people.
Deputy spokeswoman Lula Rodriguez said later that Rubin's remarks had been prompted by reports that Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), a fervent supporter of the Cuban prohibitions, might introduce a bill that would let the U.S. government donate food and medicine to nonprofit groups in Cuba, even while the sanctions remained in place.
That kind of legislation would reflect a major change in Helms' thinking about the sanctions, which Pope John Paul II condemned during his five-day visit to Cuba. Two of Helms' top aides were in the country during the papal visit.
Rubin was careful not to promise too much at his daily news briefing as he replied to reporters who asked him to comment about the pope's opposition to all economic sanctions, especially those on Cuba.
"We have seen proposals for adjustments in the food and medicine area," Rubin said. "They are something that we will take a look at. And all I can say about these initiatives is that they merit consideration, and we look forward to an opportunity to talk to sponsors and review any proposed legislation."
Willard A. Workman, a leading critic of sanctions and vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, described Rubin's comments as "a change in the public stance of the administration." The chamber, which opposes all sanctions, has helped organize a lobby of influential Americans in support of legislation that would lift the ban on the purchase of food and medicine.
Although Workman called the latest administration stance "encouraging," he was wary about reading too much into it. "We would like to see a proposal from the administration," he said. "So far, all we have is sizzle and no steak."
The legislation supported by the chamber was introduced in the Senate by Sens. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.) and in the House by Reps. Esteban Edward Torres (D-Pico Rivera) and James A. Leach (R-Iowa). Their bills, unlike the reported Helms proposal, would allow the sale of food and medicine to Cuba.
No hearings have been held on the anti-embargo bills. At a meeting of American members of Congress and European lawmakers in Brussels last week, Torres took advantage of a discussion of the boycott of Cuba to urge Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House International Affairs Committee, to schedule hearings.
"Surely a bill which is building such broad and diverse support deserves public hearings," Torres said. Torres reported that Gilman promised that he would give consideration to the idea of hearings.
* THE CARDINAL ON CUBA: L.A.'s Cardinal Roger Mahony believes that religious freedom will prevail in Cuba. B1