- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 17, 2002

The State Department's senior envoy to Havana, on the eve of a congressional vote to lift a ban on visits by Americans to Cuba, said President Bush will veto the measure if it passes.

"The president has said it clearly and recently that any effort to weaken the embargo or lift the travel ban will be vetoed," said James Cason, a career diplomat who takes over as chief of the unofficial U.S. mission in Havana, replacing Vicki Huddleston.

The United States has no formal diplomatic relations with Cuba, but it keeps a senior representative on duty at the former U.S. Embassy.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush yesterday again put off for six months a law allowing Americans to sue foreign companies using Cuban property confiscated after the 1959 communist takeover of the Caribbean island.

In a letter sent to key members of Congress, Mr. Bush said extending the suspension is "necessary to the national interests of the United States and will expedite a transition to democracy in Cuba."

The extension allows the United States to avoid potential disputes with nations of the European Union, whose firms have investments in Cuba.

On Capitol Hill, the House is expected to begin voting today on several measures to weaken the 40-year-old U.S. economic embargo on Cuba.

One proposal would lift the prohibition on U.S. tourist travel to Cuba for its cigars, rum and white-sand beaches.

When a similar travel proposal was introduced last year, the House approved 240-186.

Supporters expect a larger margin this year, but the Bush administration is unlikely to allow U.S. tourists to prop up Cuban President Fidel Castro's failing regime, Mr. Cason said in an interview.

"The Cuban military runs the tourist industry. A foreign hotel pays the government $100 for a worker, but the Cuban government pays the workers in Cuban pesos, worth about $4.50. This is theft, and people would be outraged if it were taking place anywhere else in Latin America," he said.

On Monday, the Center for International Policy released a study saying U.S. economic output might increase by more than $1 billion a year, with U.S. airlines receiving more than $400 million in business with Cuba, if the embargo were lifted.

Mr. Cason, who has spent 32 years focusing on hot spots in Latin America, scoffed at the numbers.

"I think there is a tendency to exaggerate," he said, pointing to a study released last week by the European Union that said foreign investment in Cuba was plummeting.

The EU study noted that direct foreign investment in the island during the past five years peaked at $488 million in 2000 and fell to $38.9 million in 2001.

The study blamed Cuba's state-run economy, the red tape involved with practicing capitalism in a communist economy, excessive utility costs because of state monopolies and the arbitrary application of laws toward foreign business. It also cited the U.S. embargo as a reason.

Despite the European complaints, Mr. Castro has ruled out changes to Cuba's political and economic system.

"You know the rules when you get here," Foreign Investment Minister Marta Lomas told a group of European businessmen last week, according to the Economist magazine.

"Cuba is $11 billion in debt. They cannot pay their bills. The sugar industry is failing. Tourism is down 20 percent. Debt is up the roads, water and electricity are a mess. Cuba is not a good place for investors," Mr. Cason said yesterday.

As a result, foreign businessmen, frustrated by the bureaucracy, are leaving Cuba in droves, the Economist said.

To those who predict that U.S. economic involvement will hasten the fall of communism in Cuba, as it did in Eastern Europe, the evidence suggests otherwise, Mr. Cason said.

"What changes has indiscriminate engagement by the European Union brought in Cuba?" he asked.

On whether Cuba is making biological weapons, he referred to "Biohazard," a book by Ken Alibek, a scientist who once ran the Soviet Union's biological weapons program. In the book, Mr. Alibek speculates that Cuba has such a program.

Mr. Cason said there is concern that Cuba, which is on the State Department's list of terrorism-sponsoring nations, is being used as a base for Irish Republican Army cadres, who also have been accused of teaching sophisticated bomb-making techniques to Marxist guerrillas in Colombia.

"It is clear that all kinds of terrorist groups have been welcome to take up residence in Havana. There are 88 U.S. fugitives of justice in Cuba now, walking around after airplane hijackings, killing policemen and other acts of terrorism."

He said that as chief of mission in Havana, he plans to continue "outreach" to dissidents, including giving them radios with which they could listen to Cuban government broadcasts, Jamaican reggae or Radio Marti from the United States.

"We will continue to work with people who need and want information as they prepare for the transition" to life without Mr. Castro, he said.

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