- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 10, 2000

With the continuing national hoopla over one Cuban boy, less attention has been paid to recent developments in Washington that could also signify a shift in U.S.-Cuba relations. At my behest, the House Ways and Means Committee chaired by Rep. Bill Archer asked the International Trade Commission to study the 40-year U.S. embargo on most trade with Cuba. This unprecedented technical analysis, due out next February, may well reveal the economic benefits to the United States of unrestricted commerce with our Caribbean neighbor.

On the Senate side, Sen. Jesse Helms, the powerful chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, agreed to a Republican-sponsored measure that would remove most restrictions on sales of U.S. agricultural and health care products to Cuba and other nations. This is the same Mr. Helms who crafted the 1996 "Helms-Burton" law that further tied the hands of the U.S. government and business in dealing with the island, after the Cuban air force shot down two planes piloted by right-wing Cuban exiles. Last year when 70 out of 100 senators, including most Republicans, voted in favor of legislation authorizing these sales, Mr. Helms was opposed. But on March 23, he joined with Senate Majority leader Trent Lott and farm state Republicans in permitting American farmers and health care companies to seek new export opportunities, and this week a House subcommittee followed.

Is this 180-degree turn by GOP conservatives surprising? Not if you take into account that more and more Republicans are uniting with longtime Democratic opponents of the embargo in recognizing the insanity and inhumanity of our current policy. This session Republican members of Congress have proposed allowing increased food and medical sales, loosening travel restrictions on U.S. citizens, and removing all existing barriers to commerce with Cuba, echoing legislation proposed by Democrats. Distinguished Republican political figures including former President Gerald Ford, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Illinois Gov. George Ryan and journalist William F. Buckley have joined numerous members in publicly calling for a new Cuba policy.

They have been accompanied by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other groups keenly aware that American farmers and other businesses would benefit from unrestricted trade with Cuba, which last year imported roughly $750 million in food and health care products worldwide. Despite restrictions, the number of U.S. business travelers to the island has increased by more than 500 percent since 1994. This January, nearly 100 U.S. health care companies participated in the largest commercial exhibition for U.S. businesses in four decades, and other food and health care fairs are awaiting Treasury Department approval.

Congress and the Clinton administration might have already normalized relations with Cuba if not for the downing of the Brothers to the Rescue planes four years ago. That incident provided an opportunity for the Cuban government and extremists in Miami and Washington to re-politicize the issue and, in an election year, led to passage of the more restrictive Helms-Burton law. This year competition between the two parties for Florida's 25 electoral votes is again driving politicians to pander to the extremes. Both Fidel Castro and those obsessed with removing him are now trying to use the tragedy of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez to their political advantage.

The hard-line Cuban-American lobby and its friends in Congress fight tooth-and-nail to keep the boy here against his father's wishes, hoping to derail any improvement in bilateral relations. Mr. Castro employs the embargo and Elian Gonzalez as anti-U.S. propaganda in order to strengthen his grip on power.

Ironically, the polls show that their politicization of the Elian case has only added to growing public sentiment for re-examining U.S. policy towards Cuba. Instead of standing by silently during his final months in office, President Clinton could seize this moment to spearhead common-sense modifications beneficial to the American and Cuban peoples. He should join a growing chorus of Democrats and Republicans; farmers suffering from low commodity prices; businesses in search of new markets; and organizations and ordinary citizens concerned about immigration, drugs, family reunification and democracy, by pointing out the advantages of normalizing relations. By using the presidency and his own persuasiveness to push the legislative and administrative changes needed to change the embargo, Mr. Clinton could leave a truly historic legacy.

Such bold action would be consistent with the administration's policies towards other communist countries. Mr. Clinton wants Congress to clear the way for free trade with China, and he has worked to establish relations with North Korea and Vietnam. Doesn't it make sense to ease relations with Cuba, given its closer location and the fact that unilateral sanctions have not resulted in Mr. Castro's ouster? A restrictive U.S. policy towards Cuba had some validity while the Soviet Union was still aiding its government. But today this outdated policy merely serves to entrench Mr. Castro in power, strain relations with our allies, and hurt ordinary Cubans and Americans.

These ineffective sanctions towards Cuba are at the root of the Elian saga that has upset and saddened so many of us. If Charlie Rangel, Jesse Helms,and other politicians from across the spectrum can agree on steps towards ending the embargo, why shouldn't the president take the lead in making our relations with Cuba more productive?

Rep. Charles B. Rangel is a Democrat from New York.

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