Deal paves way for U.S. to ease Cuba embargo

Monday, June 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Congress to vote on food, medicine sales

WASHINGTON – The House Republican leadership early Tuesday cleared the way for the first congressional easing of the nearly 40-year-old Cuba trade embargo.

The agreement will allow a House vote later this week on lifting trade sanctions involving U.S. food and medicine sales. Under existing sanctions, U.S. firms generally cannot sell food and medicine to Cuba, North Korea, Libya, Iran and Sudan.

Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., chief sponsor of the measure, emerged after six hours of negotiations to say he had realized "a huge breakthrough for our farmers.''

"It's the first major change in our Cuba foreign policy in 40 years,'' he said.

Mr. Nethercutt said he can easily muster a two-thirds majority in the House behind the measure. Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., last year got a similar measure through the Senate by a 70-28 vote.

Mr. Ashcroft's measure was dropped by the House leadership when last year's agriculture spending bill came to the House, largely due to the opposition of Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land.

The negotiations, which lasted until almost 2 a.m. Washington time, dealt mainly with financing terms that will determine whether the change is only symbolic or whether commercial sales can follow.

Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., said the agreement would not allow Cuba to gain any trade financing from the U.S. government or U.S. banks. Mr. Diaz-Balart, who led the opposition to Mr. Nethercutt's proposal, also said the measure would prohibit the Clinton administration from opening U.S. tourism to Cuba.

Mr. Diaz-Balart said, "I feel very good about the agreement.''

A recent study assuming U.S. firms would capture 15 percent of Cuban imports of food and medicine estimated $111 million in U.S. sales in the year following passage of Mr. Nethercutt's legislation. The study was done by former U.S. International Trade Commission chairwoman Paula Stern, now president of the Stern Group Inc.

A lower estimate of $20 million to $35 million was offered by John Kavulich III, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council Inc. He said the U.S. government would need several months to draft regulations implementing the legislation.

Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Abilene, who has pushed to ease the embargo, said he doesn't expect significant U.S. exports will come from the measure.

"It won't be much, but it's the first step," he said. "The next step's up to Mr. [Fidel] Castro – to open up his economy."

Mr. Stenholm, who visited Cuba this year with members of the Texas Farm Bureau, said he expected that Cuba would follow the U.S. action with economic reforms. Those steps could be met with a further easing of the trade embargo, he said, and more substantial U.S. exports.

Texas could benefit through expanded exports of beef, wheat, rice and cotton, according to Department of Agriculture estimates.

Whether the measure is symbol or substance, it marks "the first time since the revolution in 1959 that the U.S. Congress has expanded the relationship," Mr. Kavulich said.

Business and agriculture groups have joined farm-state Republicans in driving this effort to ease sanctions against Cuba. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has gone all-out in lobbying for the Nethercutt legislation.

Mr. Kavulich said easing the sanctions would have more political than commercial impact, particularly in Cuba.

"The question is whether politically Cuba wants to deal with the United States," he said. "Much of Fidel Castro's revolution has been based on ridding Cuba of various U.S. influences."