- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 25, 2002

The Republican-led House defied a veto threat from President Bush by voting overwhelmingly to ease the 40-year-old economic embargo against Cuba and let American tourists visit the island.

In a series of lopsided votes Tuesday night, lawmakers approved measures:

•Allowing private financing of agricultural sales to the island.

•Lifting restrictions on the amount of money Cuban Americans can send to relatives on the island.

•Abolishing restrictions on who can and cannot travel to Cuba, this on a 262-167 vote.

•Allowing financing of food and medicine sales, on a voice vote.

"This is all about freedom," said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican. "Our government shouldn't tell us where to travel and where not to travel."

Republicans from farm states joined most Democrats to overpower those who argued the measures would be a victory for Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

The measure to lift a $1,200-a-year cap on remittances to Cuba by relatives in the United States won on a 251-177 vote.

On a 247-182 vote, lawmakers defeated an amendment offered by Rep. Porter J. Goss, Florida Republican, and supported by the hard-line anti-Castro caucus that would have kept the travel restrictions in place until Cuba proved it was not developing biological weapons.

"When 64 members of the Republican caucus vote against Goss, you realize there has been a significant change," said Rep. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, who represents a large Cuban-American constituency. He voted to keep the restrictions in place.

"We are facing a powerful convergence. It is about money. Conservative Republican agricultural interests are seeking markets at any cost," Mr. Menendez said.

Frank Calzon, of the Center for a Free Cuba, called the vote a "defeat for freedom."

"Cuba is a terrorist nation, harboring fugitives from American justice. Members of Congress are ignoring the evidence," Mr. Calzon said.

The measures were amendments in an $18.5 billion appropriations bill to fund the Treasury Department, the White House and other federal agencies for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

The votes were a clear defeat for the White House, which put on last-minute pressure with a letter from Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill opposing the legislation.

Undersecretary of State John Bolton also sent a letter explaining why the administration considered Cuba a terrorist threat. He said Havana has the technology to make offensive biological weapons.

James Cason, the senior U.S. envoy to Cuba, told The Washington Times last week that Mr. Bush would veto "any effort to weaken the embargo or lift the travel ban." Mr. Bush has never used his veto pen.

The Senate is expected to defy the White House as well and pass similar measures.

Wayne Smith, President Carter's senior diplomatic representative in Havana, said Mr. Bush's opposition is all about Florida politics.

"President Bush doesn't want to offend the hard-line Cuban exiles because his brother [Florida Gov. Jeb Bush] is up for election," Mr. Smith said.

Geoff Thale, of the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group, said the vote reflects growing sentiment in Congress and throughout the United States that U.S. policy needs to change.

"We permit travel to China, why not Cuba?" he said.

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