House Members Attempt to Ease Anti-Cuba Trade, Travel Policies

A bipartisan group of House lawmakers on Thursday called for an easing of the Cuban trade embargo and an end to restrictions on travel to the communist country.

The administration is determined to maintain the embargo and the travel restrictions. Lifting these curbs would give a boost to the Cuban economy and prolong communist rule, the administration says.

Otto Reich, the State Department's top official for Latin America, said last week the United States can speed a democratic transition in Cuba by "not throwing a lifeline to a failed, corrupt, dictatorial, murderous regime."

But congressional opponents of the policy appear to be growing in number.

"Quite simply, our Cuba policy has failed," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a member of the House International Relations Committee. "After 40 years, the U.S. policy toward Cuba has yielded few results. I think it's time to try something new."

He said that only through engagement can the United States promote democracy and improve human rights in Cuba.

At a news conference, Flake recommended an end to restrictions that limit legal travel for Americans to those who have a professional interest in the island. For the most part, he said, Americans are unable to see what President Fidel Castro has wrought.

"Every American should have the right to see firsthand what a mess he has made of that island," Flake said.

Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., said it was an anomaly for the government to bar most Americans from visiting Cuba while allowing them to visit Iran and North Korea.

"By my calculation that's two-thirds of the axis of evil," Delahunt said, referring to the description of Iran, Iraq and North Korean by President Bush in his State of the Union address.

Traditional embargo critics have joined together with anti-embargo lawmakers from farm states who see Cuba as a lucrative market for U.S. farm products.

They have banded together in a "House Cuba Working Group" to undertake a policy review.

Their two main legislative priorities are lifting restrictions on travel to Cuba and permitting private financing for agricultural sales to the island.

Cash sales of food to Cuba were permitted starting in 2000 but financing by the U.S. government or private entities was barred. Cuba began importing U.S. food last fall, after a hurricane devastated the island; total sales have been in the $70 million range.

According to a study, Arkansas farmers could export goods worth $500 million to Cuba, more than any other state. Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., said Cuba is a potential $1 billion market for U.S. farm products. The administration says Cuba is too broke to be a major market.

Beyond that, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., a pro-embargo stalwart, said Thursday it was "inconceivable that in the midst of a U.S. war on terrorism, a war that has cost American lives, members of Congress would actually propose that we become business partners with a terrorist dictatorship."

Big agribusiness, he said, "must not be allowed to provide financing to a terrorist state 90 miles from our shores."

At the news conference, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y. disputed the administration's view that the best way to hasten Castro's demise is through a policy of economic denial.

"The way to dismantle communism is not through Cold War but through trade and engagement," Rangel said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.