The White House yesterday said President Clinton will sign a bill allowing the sale of food and medicine to Cuba, easing the economic embargo on the Communist dictatorship in Cuba for the first time in nearly 40 years.
The bill will also remove the president’s prerogative to permit increased contacts between U.S. citizens with Cuba by enacting existing travel restrictions into law.
White House spokesman Jake Siewart said that Mr. Clinton would sign the bill in spite of reservations about the travel restrictions.
“It’s not a perfect provision, but on balance, that bill has a lot of other good things in it that we think are worthwhile, and we’re going to sign that bill,” he said.
Contained within the $78 billion agriculture appropriations bill, which passed the Senate 86-8 on Wednesday, the provision permits the sale of food and medicine to nations listed as sponsors of terrorism, including Iran, Libya, Sudan, North Korea and Cuba.
The bill was approved by the House 340-75 on Oct. 11. It is expected to reach the president’s desk within the next few days.
On Wednesday, 800,000 people half the population of Havana participated in a staged demonstration against the bill.
An editorial this week in Cuba’s government organ, Granma, labeled the bill a “crime” and one of many “genocidal acts” the United States has perpetrated in its “economic war against Cuba.”
“Our country will not purchase one penny of food or medicine from the United States,” said the editorial, which was circulated by the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.
Both supporters and opponents of the Cuba embargo say the measure will do little to help either the Cuban people or American farmers and pharmaceutical companies which had hoped to sell into a new market.
Wayne Smith, former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and a supporter of engaging the Cuban government, said the opening for food and medicine was “a small crack. It will not result in any sales.”
Mr. Smith said the president would likely have vetoed the bill if it had not been contained in the broader agriculture bill.
“In terms of travel, it takes away the constitutional authority of the president to conduct foreign policy. [Anti-Castro legislators] did this because they feared the president, as a lame duck, might open travel to new categories. The travel restrictions are offensive.”
At present only U.S. government officials, journalists, Cuban-Americans with relatives on the island and people traveling for religious, academic or humanitarian reasons are allowed to go to Cuba. The new law will prevent the president from adding new parties to the list.
It will do nothing to prosecute thousands of Americans who travel illegally to Cuba every year.
Lawmakers in favor of easing the embargo and the travel restrictions said they would continue to fight what they consider a shortsighted policy.
“I fail to see how isolating the Cuban people from democratic values and ideals will foster the transition to democracy in that country,” said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat.
“This issue is not settled. Those of us who want to see meaningful change in our Cuba policy will be back next year raising this matter on the floors of the House and Senate.”
Anti-Castro legislators were jubilant.
“I don’t think people sitting in the Hotel National or on the beach, smoking a Cuban cigar and drinking Cuban rum, is people-to-people contact,” said Rep. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat. “It is subterfuge for tourism and does nothing to help the Cuban people.”
“The folks who wanted to lift the embargo and engage in free trade with Cuba gambled and lost,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican, and a leader of the anti-Castro caucus. “Castro understands very well what this bill does. If the other side is claiming victory, that is just smoke and mirrors.”
The economic embargo of Cuba was put in place July 8, 1963, under the Trading with the Enemy Act, in response to Cuba’s confiscation of properties and businesses owned by U.S. citizens.
The Trade Sanction Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 will ease restrictions on the sale of food and medicine to Cuba, but prohibits U.S. banks from financing the sales making it unlikely the cash-strapped Havana government will be able to buy rice, soy or wheat from U.S. farmers.
“Cuba has a huge restriction on financing anything. It doesn’t have any cash,” said Ana Julia Jatar-Hausmann, of the Inter-American Dialogue and an expert on the Cuban economy.