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Farmers' Plight May Alter Fortunes of Cuba Embargo

Congress: Apparent majorities in Senate, House support ending sanctions on food, medicine.

May 24, 2000|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A major pillar of U.S. policy in the Western Hemisphere is teetering in Congress as a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers makes a major push to relax the economic embargo of Cuba that has ostracized the communist nation for four decades.

Republican congressional leaders scrambled Tuesday to find a way to preserve the long-standing trade embargo against Fidel Castro's government, once a sacred cow embraced by members of both political parties.

But the embargo has lost so much backing in Congress that legislation to allow the sale of food and medicine to Cuba appears to have majority support in the House and Senate for the first time. Although GOP leaders may still block the threat to the embargo through procedural means, the measure represents the toughest test yet for a policy that critics say is an anachronism of the Cold War.

"The votes are there to pass it," said Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who supports easing the embargo. "But if the opponents dig in, it will be difficult."

Critics said that the embargo's outdated nature has been underscored by arguments being used by proponents of expanded trade rights for China, which is scheduled for a House vote today. These critics contended that, if the United States decides to take that step to promote democracy in the world's largest communist country, it should do the same for Cuba.

The Cuban initiative has gotten fresh momentum from peculiar political and economic forces buffeting some lawmakers in this election year. Many of those backing the bill are Republicans in tight reelection contests in the Farm Belt, where falling prices for agricultural commodities have increased demand for new export markets.

The political dynamics also have been reshaped by the emotion-laden Elian Gonzalez custody case. Some lawmakers said that there may be less sympathy for the Cuban American community--which largely opposes allowing more trade with Cuba--because it took such a militant stand against letting the 6-year-old Cuban castaway be reunited with his father.

But the Gonzalez imbroglio may also cut the other way and increase the determination of anti-Castro forces to keep the embargo intact.

Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), who vehemently opposes the move to open agricultural trade with Cuba, pledged: "We're going to do everything we can to stop it."

The issue now before Congress is a proposal to relax the embargo on trade with Cuba to allow the sale of food and medicine. The measure, which has been attached to House and Senate versions of the annual agriculture appropriation bill, also would allow food and medicine exports to four other pariah nations: Iran, Libya, North Korea and Sudan.

Although changes in trade policy toward the other countries also may generate opposition, the focus of controversy is Cuba. The trade embargo against the island nation was put in place shortly after Castro took power in 1959.

Proponents of easing the embargo said that humanitarian goods, such as food and medicine, should not be used as weapons of foreign policy.

"It is not a moral policy, in my judgment, to take aim at a dictator and instead hit the sick and the poor and the hungry," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.).

Others argued that including food in economic sanctions hurts U.S. farmers, who have suffered economically in recent years, even as most other business sectors have prospered.

"A new consensus is emerging on the issue of food and medicine sanctions," said Rep. George R. Nethercutt Jr. (R-Wash.), chief sponsor of the House measure to relax the embargo. "My amendment is about freedom--freedom for our farmers to market and the promotion of freedom through new market opportunities."

Nethercutt, facing a tough reelection campaign in part because he rescinded a term-limits pledge, estimated that the bill would open food markets worth $7 billion a year to U.S. farmers, including $1 billion in Cuba alone.

And he and other proponents argued that it is hypocritical to support expanding trade to China while continuing to block food and medicine sales to Cuba.

"People are scratching their heads saying, 'Let me get this straight: It's OK to trade with communist China but not with communist Cuba,' " said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

But those opposed to easing the embargo said that there is a big difference between the two countries: Cuba has shown far less willingness than China to consider economic reforms.

"China is looking forward to the opportunity to engage in international commerce, and I think they're willing to demonstrate the reforms in their own system necessary to accommodate that," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas). "You don't see that in Cuba. And Cuba is just a very stubborn, unwilling place."

Added Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, a leading Democratic ally of Cuban Americans: "To begin commerce with Cuba is for the U.S. to be the first to blink."

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