- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 19, 2002

A decades-old fight over the direction of Washington's Cuba policy is expected to enter a new phase this week as a bipartisan coalition of House members is scheduled to announce an organized effort to ease trade and travel restrictions against the Communist-ruled the island.

But as the congressional Cuba working group announces its intentions, the Bush administration is said to be on the verge of completing a broad review of Cuba policy that will bring in a new initiative to tighten sanctions against Cuba.

Pro- and anti-embargo factions are always fighting for position, but the stakes are particularly high this year following the Cuban government's recent purchases of more than $70 million worth of U.S. farm products the first U.S. sales to the Castro regime in more than 40 years.

These sales have spurred momentum to ease trade restrictions even further, but have also spurred backers of the embargo to fight this momentum.

"I think it's an important time," said Rep. George Nethercutt, Washington Republican, one of the core members of the Cuba working group who successfully pushed a slight easing of the embargo in 2000 that allows American companies to sell food and medicine to Cuban government entities on a cash basis.

"We want to have a good debate. The policy needs to be decided by the nation, not just a region," he added, referring to the hold Cuban-American interests have had over Cuba policy for decades. Among other things, Mr. Nethercutt and others want to allow U.S. banks to provide financing for American farm exports.

Standing in the way, however, is the Bush administration, which has indicated in recent weeks that it would use all available means to tighten U.S. restrictions and portray Cuba as a terrorist country. In meetings this month, officials including White House senior adviser Karl Rove; Otto Reich, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs; and others said the administration is fully behind efforts to maintain and even strengthen the embargo.

This pledge came after Cuban Americans criticized the administration for not doing enough to deter increased contacts with Cuba through trade and travel. Cuban Americans were also disappointed by President Bush's decision to continue his predecessor's policy of refusing to allow those with claims to confiscated property in Cuba to sue companies using that property under the so-called Helms-Burton law.

"There were great expectations with Bush's election, especially given [the close vote in] Florida," Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) Executive Vice President Dennis Hays said after meeting with officials this month. "There was an understanding that things would take time after September 11, but then there was a feeling that Cuba, with its ties to terrorism, wasn't being taken seriously enough."

Mr. Hays said this feeling among supporters of the embargo has faded in recent weeks, based on a pledge that the administration is finally willing to tighten restrictions. This expectation was backed up last week by Mr. Reich, who said in his first public remarks since taking office this year that the administration sees sanctions as a legitimate foreign policy tool against Fidel Castro's "failed, corrupt, dictatorial, murderous regime."

"We are not going to help Fidel Castro stay in power by opening up our markets to Cuba," Mr. Reich said in a March 12 speech in Washington. The first public blow in the battle over U.S.-Cuban policy is due this week, when the Cuba working group outlines its goals at a press conference Thursday.

The group's core members Reps. Nethercutt, Marion Berry and Vic Snyder, both Arkansas Democrats; Bill Delahunt, Massachusetts Democrat; Jo Ann Emerson, Missouri Republican; and Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican are hoping to have 20 members on board, and will outline policy goals that include export financing for sales to Cuba and reduced restrictions on travel to the island.

Members of the group have already taken the lead in fighting for these changes. For example, Mr. Flake, in coordination with Democratic Sen. Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota, has played a significant role in trying to ease U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba, even though House leaders scuttled these efforts last year.

Mr. Flake and other members believe that by coordinating their efforts by forming the Cuba working group, they can be successful where previous individual efforts have failed.

"Travel is tough, but we had a big margin last year in favor," Mr. Flake said last week. "I don't think travel is impossible to win now."

By joining forces, the group also expects to be able to expand its role beyond trade and travel, areas that have been of most interest to the agricultural constituencies of the core members of the Cuba working group.

For example, the group is expected to announce its support for a controversial trademark law known as Section 211, to prevent companies from registering intellectual property in the United States if it was used in connection with confiscated property in Cuba. The law, successfully challenged by the European Union in the World Trade Organization, was pushed by Bacardi of Bermuda in order to deny a French-Cuban joint-venture company the right to register the "Havana Club" trademark in the United States.

While the law is seen primarily as a weapon that benefits Bacardi in its fight to obtain the trademark, agricultural exporters have noted that Cuba has previously threatened U.S. trademarks as a way to retaliate against the law, which could threaten future U.S. exports of branded food products to the island.

To counter these efforts, the White House is expected to send a clear message that it opposes all efforts to engage Cuba, which proponents of the embargo hope will be enough to discourage congressional efforts to lift the sanctions. In addition, the White House is expected to release in the coming weeks a broad review of current U.S. restrictions against Cuba, which are likely to be followed up by recommendations on how to more tightly enforce existing sanctions.

The review being conducted by the National Security Council and Mr. Reich at the State Department is expected to be issued in April, and there are tentative plans to have Mr. Bush announce its findings in a speech on Latin America in general or Cuba in particular.

Based on briefings this month, Mr. Hays and other informed sources say it is already clear the initiative will result in tougher enforcement of travel restrictions and other rules by the administration. In a move that could chill efforts to trade with Cuba, the review is also expected to include a close examination of recent sales of U.S. farm commodities to Cuba to make sure these exports are not subsidized.

In addition to this effort, the administration is expected to describe Cuba's suspected ties to terrorist entities in the State Department's annual terrorism report, which is expected at the end of April.

In the last few weeks, the administration appears to have listened closely to all groups favoring tighter sanctions as it prepares its policy review. But divisions within the pro-sanctions lobby and recent criticism of the administration's efforts on Cuba are two problems that have complicated the lobbying efforts of those who support sanctions.

This year, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican, was one of a handful of members who sharply criticized the administration for allowing Cuban officials to visit the United States and for establishing contact with Cuban military officials at Guantanamo Bay.

Fears that Washington was softening its position on Cuba have subsided recently, but were rekindled last week when Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill said he would prefer easing travel sanctions against Cuba.

While Mr. O'Neill later retracted his words, the comment clearly shook pro-sanctions members as another sign that the Cabinet may not support Mr. Bush's plans for Cuba. His comments prompted Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, also a Florida Republican, to issue a March 15 statement calling on Mr. Bush to "fire O'Neill."

Despite this perceived misstep by Mr. O'Neill, Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen and others said they are confident that Mr. Bush himself still favors taking steps to enforce the embargo and isolate Cuba economically.

"We're very blessed to have George W. Bush in the White House when it comes to U.S.-Cuba relations," Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen said. "I'm very optimistic that George Bush is a man of his word."

Efforts to lobby for tighter sanctions have also been complicated by the partial breakup of CANF last summer, when a number of influential members grew dissatisfied with the direction the group was taking. After leaving, they formed the Cuban Liberty Council, a group with strong White House connections that is now vying with CANF to represent Cuban-American interests.

While these two groups pursue many common goals, some believe the CLC will soon surpass CANF as the primary lobby group for Cuban Americas, and that CANF is suffering from serious financial problems after losing some of its key members last year.

Most observers agree that an early test for both sides will be the fight over whether private U.S. banks should be permitted to finance exports to Cuba. Language allowing this was passed as part of the Senate farm bill, but is not included in the House version, meaning that a House-Senate conference committee will have to decide whether to accept or reject the language, a decision that could come late this month.

Members of the Cuba working group urged conferees from both sides of the aisle to support the language, and in a "dear colleague" letter last week said private financing could mean more than $130 million worth of new U.S. exports to Cuba and more than 3,600 new jobs in the districts of the conferees.

On the other side, pro-sanctions members have enlisted the support of the White House and House leaders to make sure the language is stripped.

White House officials have told House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, that they oppose the financing provision, which in turn has prompted House leaders to demand that House Republican conferees vote against the provision in conference.

In addition to this pressure, the CLC last week urged House and Senate conferees to consult with the FBI and the National Security Council about Cuba's links to terrorism before supporting the financing language.

Ignacio Sanchez, one of eight members of the CLC's board of directors, said the group hopes conferees will inform themselves about Cuba first, after which they will find it hard to support the financing provision.

In the end, both sides are hoping that in the fight over export financing as well as the broader battle over other elements of the embargo the White House will perceive a greater political advantage in siding with their views.

Sally Grooms Cowal, who heads the pro-engagement Cuba Policy Foundation, says that for the first time in a long time, those seeking to lift trade, travel and other restrictions against Cuba have coalesced into a formidable group, thanks largely to the recent wave of U.S. exports.

"The administration has put some high-profile, hard-line players in key positions," she said. "They would have been less concerned if they didn't see other forces gathering that weren't there before."

In contrast, the other side is hopeful that efforts by the administration to demonstrate why Cuba remains on the list of countries that support terrorism will dissuade Congress from moving to ease the embargo.

"The day will come when all these people working for the interests of the [Castro] dictatorship are going to be very embarrassed," said Mr. Diaz-Balart. He added that the full story of Cuba's poor human rights record and other problems will only be known when Mr. Castro is no longer in charge, and that for this reason, Mr. Bush will do all he can to "never … let a relationship with Castro develop."

The writer is a Washington-based reporter who publishes the newsletter Cuba Trader.

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