Thursday, January 25, 2007

Legislation to chip away at the Bush administration’s hard-line Cuba policy is in the works in the House, where Republicans and Democrats are planning a variety of measures aimed at easing the U.S. policy on Cuba.

The first bill, which would lift the ban on Americans traveling to Cuba, was introduced yesterday by Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican.

The Cuban economic embargo, which dates to the 1960s, allows cash sales only for food, medicine and medical equipment and restricts travel to the island.

U.S. citizens are generally barred from travel to Cuba without a specific license, although there are exceptions for working journalists, researchers and some others. Permits for visits to immediate family members in Cuba may be issued every three years.

The measures to ease the policy will be filed as stand-alone legislation or as amendments to appropriations bills or other legislation.

Mr. Flake, who introduced his bill with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat, said that nearly 50 years of the current policy have “done little” to bring democracy to Cuba.

Instead of aiding democratic reform, the policy has given Cuban President Fidel Castro “a convenient scapegoat for his own regime’s failures,” Mr. Flake said.

Rep. Bill Delahunt, Massachusetts Democrat, plans legislation to ease restrictions on Cuban-American family travel.

Other possibilities include legislation to ease payment restrictions for cash sales of food to Cuba.

Rep. Jerry Moran, Kansas Republican, is planning to introduce one such payment-regulation bill next week. He said Wednesday that stand-alone Cuba legislation is more likely to reach the House floor now than under Republican leadership, partly because Republican leaders were adamantly opposed to dealings with Cuba.

President Bush’s continuing tough stance toward Havana, however, means that a full-scale lifting of the Cuba embargo could encounter a veto threat.

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, Missouri Republican, who plans to co-sponsor Mr. Moran’s proposal, said that Congress may be able to make some changes in the Cuba policy, but that even with a new Democratic majority, any such changes would be “pretty incremental.”

Mr. Rangel criticized Mr. Bush as being “locked into punishing Castro,” but suggested that Mr. Bush would not veto bills that have Republican support.

“He’s in enough trouble for the war that the best he can look for is trying to be able to accomplish something among Republican members. He owes them big time,” Mr. Rangel said.

The White House had no comment on the bills yesterday. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe only said: “Our Cuba policy is unchanged.”

The bills come as the state of Mr. Castro’s health remains a mystery.

Mr. Castro, who has not been seen in public since July, has temporarily handed over power to his younger brother, Raul, but it is not clear whether a permanent succession would result in a fundamental change in Cuba’s government.

Some observers have suggested recently that Fidel Castro’s departure from the scene might not cause any fundamental change in Cuba’s political system.

Earlier this month, a senior U.S. intelligence official told congressional intelligence panels, “Raul Castro is firmly in control as Cuba’s acting president and will likely maintain power and stability after Fidel Castro dies, at least for the short term.”

Army Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the committees that the younger Castro “has widespread respect and support among Cuban military leaders who will be crucial in permanent government succession.”

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