WASHINGTON -- Former President Carter's visit to Havana reverberated through Washington on Wednesday, rejuvenating a congressional drive to ease the U.S. trade embargo on the island nation while forcing the White House to explain why President Bush favors commerce with Communist China but not Cuba.
In a long-planned address on Cuba scheduled for Monday in Miami, however, Bush is expected to announce an even-tougher policy that might include additional trade sanctions and further restrictions on travel to the island, as well as increased aid to Cuban dissidents.
Bush has shown little interest in improving U.S. relations with President Fidel Castro's Communist government, as he stressed in his initial response this week to Carter's trip. "I haven't changed my foreign policy," Bush said.
Though the White House says this hard-line stance is not motivated by domestic politics, one beneficiary should be the president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
The president's Monday speech is expected to further energize much of the Cuban American community in Florida in behalf of the governor, who is seeking reelection this year.
"The Republicans have rightly or wrongly tied [U.S. policy toward Cuba] to Gov. Bush's reelection," said Terry McCoy, a professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
In the longer term, fervent Cuban American support for President Bush's policy would benefit his own reelection chances in the battleground state.
At the White House on Wednesday, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer was bombarded with questions about the different economic approaches toward China and Cuba.
"The president believes that trade with Cuba ends up giving the government more resources to repress its people," Fleischer said. "History has shown that when Cuba receives the benefits of trade from other nations, those benefits are not passed on to the Cuban people, unlike China, where the trade benefits are indeed passed on to the people of China."
Among those calling for an easing of sanctions was Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). Emerging from the West Wing after a breakfast meeting with Bush, Daschle argued that trade with Cuba could lead to democratic reforms there.
"We have reached out to countries around the world with similar governments," Daschle said. "We can democratize Cuba with greater trade and greater outreach."
On Capitol Hill, a bipartisan coalition of the Cuba Working Group, made up of farm-state lawmakers and free-trade advocates, urged Bush to allow unfettered sale of food and medicine and to end the travel restrictions that prevent ordinary U.S. citizens from visiting Cuba.
The House has voted twice in recent years to end the travel ban, but the measure progressed no further.
Congress two years ago approved legislation to allow the sale of food and medicine to Cuba. But the measure imposes tight restrictions that have severely limited such shipments. The first shipment of food--including 55 million pounds of corn--arrived only last December.
In Havana, meanwhile, Carter met with religious leaders, teachers and local government officials in the countryside before attending a state dinner in his honor at Castro's presidential palace.
Cuban newspapers--all government-owned--played up Carter's appeal Tuesday for an end to the embargo and the opening of a new era of closer U.S.-Cuban relations. He issued that call in a speech on state-run television--the first time that Castro's regime allowed a present or former U.S. president to freely address Cubans.
U.S. officials in Havana praised Carter's address and its potential impact on the growth of democracy in Cuba.
"It wasn't just a little step. It was an enormous stride," said Vicki Huddleston, who heads the U.S. Interests Section in the Cuban capital, the diplomatic mission Carter reopened during his presidential term.
"Does it mean that tomorrow change will come? No. But does it mean change will continue apace and even speed up? Yes, I think it will."
Bush on Monday is scheduled to deliver essentially the same speech twice--once before leaving Washington and then again in Miami--as part of the observance of Cuban Independence Day. He will also speak at a fund-raiser for his brother.
Gov. Bush's reelection bid is one of this year's most closely watched races. Democrats and African American leaders, upset over the disputed 2000 presidential election in Florida, have been organizing voter registration drives throughout the state in their campaign to defeat Gov. Bush.
"I'm projecting that we're going to have an election year that looks more like a presidential year--in terms of turnout," said Susan A. McManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
Florida's Cuban American community typically votes overwhelmingly Republican. Some political experts note, however, that the community's impact on Florida politics is waning, in part because non-Cuban Latinos now outnumber Cuban Latinos in the state.
However, some analysts say the spotlight President Bush will put on U.S.-Cuba relations with his Monday speech is sure to help his brother.
"Both Bushes can bat this one out of the park by condemning Cuban communism and Castro, thereby thrilling most Cuban Americans and tying them even more closely to the Republican Party," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato. "A president should wish that all decisions were so obvious and politically rewarding."
Times staff writers Nick Anderson in Washington, Mark Fineman in Havana and Anna M. Virtue in Miami contributed to this report.