Lawmakers Wanting Closer Relations to Cuba Face Obstinate Administration

Congressional opponents of the half-century-old attempt to isolate Cuba have been emboldened by Fidel Castro's resignation.

But people who might be planning their vacation getaway to Havana should also be mindful that while President Fidel may be gone, President Bush, a staunch defender of the embargo, still has a year to go.

For years lawmakers of both parties have been trying to chip away at the Cold War trade, travel and home visit restrictions aimed at undermining a hostile government just 90 miles from U.S. shores. They argue that last month's change in leadership from the ailing Fidel to his brother Raul provides the opportunity to end a prolonged exercise in futility.

"Our policy leaves us without influence at this critical moment, and this serves neither the U.S. national interest nor average Cubans," more than 100 House members, including nine Republicans, wrote Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "After 50 years, it is time for us to think and act anew." Twenty-four senators wrote a similar letter to Rice.

The embargo, said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., has been an enabler to decades of oppression. "We should not give Raul Castro the same benefits that we gave his brother, Fidel. We cannot continue to be the Goliath to their David."

The Bush administration, however, has been adamant that a new Castro in power doesn't mean a new Cuba, and that changes in U.S. policy hinge on Cuba first improving its human rights record and holding free elections.

"I can't imagine that happening any time soon," said Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte.

That won't stop Congress from making the attempt. The top two trade lawmakers, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., are both pushing legislation to ease trade and travel restrictions.

Acting House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman, D-Calif., has scheduled a hearing Wednesday with administration officials to review U.S. policy and discuss the opportunity "to inject creativity and fresh ideas into that policy."

Rep. Jerry Moran of Kansas, one of many farm-state Republicans to oppose the embargo, said he will continue efforts to change Treasury Department rules imposed in 2005 that have been an impediment to agriculture sales. The House in recent years has tried several times to attach anti-embargo measures to annual spending bills, only to have those provisions stripped later under threat of a presidential veto.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said he will try again this year, focusing on restrictions that bar most Americans from traveling to the island and removing those administration regulations that block sales of food and medicine.

"I think there are Republicans who now understand that this country's policy toward Cuba has no grounding in common sense," Dorgan said.

But Republican Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-born lawmaker and a leader of the fiercely anti-Castro community of south Florida, insisted that power in Cuba has merely shifted to "hard-liners with the most blood on their hands." There may be rumblings in Congress this year to change course, but "there always are and we defeat them," he said.

Jake Colvin, director of USA Engage, a group that opposes economic sanctions as a political tool, predicted there will be some "stage-setting" this year for changes under a new administration next year. "This is a very political year and Cuba is a very political issue."

Among the presidential candidates, Republican Sen. John McCain's views are the closest to those of Bush. Easing the embargo should be linked to evidence of a transition to a free and open democracy, McCain says.

Of the Democrats, Sen. Barack Obama supports easing restrictions on family related travel and money that Cuban-Americans can send to their families in Cuba. He says he would meet with Raul Castro without preconditions. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton says she is willing to respond positively to actions that demonstrate a willingness to change in Cuba.

President Eisenhower imposed a partial embargo on the new Castro government in 1960, and President Kennedy expanded trade and travel restrictions. Barriers to travel were temporarily lifted during the Carter administration but later reimposed.

In 1996, shortly after Cuban fighter jets shot down two private planes operated by a Miami-based anti-Castro group, Congress passed the tough Helms-Burton Act that penalized foreign companies making use of property formerly owned by U.S. citizens but expropriated by the Cuban government.

But in 2000, President Clinton also signed a law allowing the sale of agricultural goods and medicine to Cuba for humanitarian reasons. Since then, agricultural sales to Cuba have risen from almost nothing to more than $440 million last year.

Moran of Kansas said he got into the issue to help his state's farmers, but said it has become "something much broader to me." America, he said, "can bring about additional personal freedom in Cuba by these kinds of activities. Personal freedom follows economic freedom."