Copyright © 1999 The Seattle Times Company
National/World News : Thursday, September 02, 1999
U.S. builds new bridges to reach Cuban markets
WASHINGTON - Driven by pressure from business and labor interests eager to tap Cuba's consumer market and by a growing consensus that U.S. policy is out of date, the Clinton administration and Congress are gradually expanding contacts with one of America's few remaining Cold War foes.
The Senate voted, 70-28, last month to lift restrictions on sales of food and medicine to Cuba. After the vote, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., met in Havana for seven hours with Cuban President Fidel Castro, then returned to Washington to call on the House to pass similar legislation. Daschle is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Cuba in decades.
So far this year, members of Congress have introduced 24 other bills to ease the 36-year-old economic embargo, which prohibits trade with the communist country.
The Clinton administration, meanwhile, has taken a series of small steps to open channels to Cuba's people, while sidestepping Castro's Communist government. These include an agreement in June between U.S. and Cuban counter-narcotics officials to work more closely to combat drug trafficking and measures to make it easier for Americans to visit Cuba, open offices there and send money, food and medicine more freely.
Shift of domestic politics
The actions reflect a growing consensus in Washington that, after decades in which Cuba policy has been set by Cold War attitudes, the domestic politics underlying that policy are shifting in fundamental ways.
The traditional clout of conservative Cuban-American groups, who have opposed any accommodation with Castro, appears to be waning. Labor leaders long hostile to Castro's government are doing an about-face. Last month, the AFL-CIO quietly passed a resolution calling for an end to the embargo. And opposition to the embargo is growing among farmers, businesspeople, religious groups and younger Cuban Americans.
None of the administration initiatives falls outside the bounds set in 1992 and 1996 by laws that stiffened the embargo. And administration officials said they do not intend to push the limits set by those laws.
"There's no hidden agenda of normalization. There's no hidden agenda of lifting the embargo. We're saying right out front what we're trying to do and that is a clear expansion of our effort to try to support the Cuban people and to try to get assistance to the Cuban people," said one administration official.
But while the White House is leery of taking the lead on weakening the embargo, administration officials said that they welcome the apparent softening of attitudes among Cubans as a bridge to a post-Castro Cuba.
That softening "is allowing what is happening to happen," an administration official said. "There has been a very significant evolution of the Cuban American community. There is no longer total unanimity on how to achieve the anti-Castro dream."
The tentative agreements to counter the narcotics trade could foster more cooperation between the two governments in the future.
In coming months, the United States and Cuba plan to take steps to improve communications on the high seas between U.S. and Cuban vessels tracking drug traffickers.
The administration has also proposed posting a Coast Guard drug-interdiction specialist at the U.S. interests section in Havana to work with Cuban law-enforcement officials. The Cuban response so far "has been positive," an administration official said.
On Capitol Hill, the potent combination of farm-state economics and the involvement of powerful new business lobbies is causing lawmakers to push further. The vote on food and medical sales marked the first time that significant numbers of Senate Republicans have backed legislation chipping away at the economic sanctions. The legislation, offered as an amendment to an agriculture appropriation bill, was introduced by Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., and supported by dozens of Republicans who voted for the very laws that have prevented such sales.
Daschle and Dorgan visited the island last month for three days of discussions with Castro and other senior Cuban officials on humanitarian issues and anti-drug efforts. A month earlier, Cuba's director of trade policy for North America, Maria de la Luz B'Hamel, met with a group of legislators on Capitol Hill.
"It serves neither the U.S.'s nor Cuba's interest to continue the embargo on vital supplies like food and medicine," Daschle said on his return.
Added Dorgan: "To continue such an embargo only hurts U.S. family farmers, who are prevented from serving the market and the citizens of Cuba who need the food and medicine."
Among those actively lobbying for increased trade with Cuba are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Farm Bureau Federation, General Electric, Citibank Corp., Boeing Co. and the pharmaceutical giant SmithKline Beecham PLC, which won State Department permission to market a meningitis vaccine from Cuba.
Speaking in California last month, Farm Bureau Federation President Dean Kleckner said that without sanctions trade between Cuba and the United States could grow to $2 billion annually within five years. At its annual meeting in January, the group voted to support opening normal trade relations with Cuba. And in April, Kleckner led agribusiness leaders on a trade mission to Cuba.
The vigorous lobbying by business groups has put Miami-based hard-liners on the defensive.
Last week, the Cuban American National Foundation, which has long been the voice of Cuban American conservatives, denounced the Farm Bureau's suggestion that U.S. farmers could find in Cuba a solution to some of their financial woes as "cheap theatrics (that) amounts to nothing more than a cynical manipulation of farmers' emotions."
"The fact is," said Jorge Mas, foundation chairman and son of the late exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa, "the farm lobby cannot produce one serious expert on the Cuban economy that can tell us how Fidel Castro's bankrupt and discredited command economy is even remotely capable of such purchasing power."
But the foundation no longer holds the overwhelming sway over U.S. policy on Cuba that it once did. The 1998 visit to Cuba of Pope John Paul II, the death the year before of Mas Canosa, increasing cultural and sports exchanges between the two countries and the ascendance of a younger generation of Cuban American activists have led to a growing diversity of views on sanctions.
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