CUBA TRAVEL U.S.
Democrats seek to ease Cuba embargo as Castro's health failsSaturday, January 27, 2007
by Mark Drajem
WASHINGTON, USA (Bloomberg): Charles Rangel, the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, is betting that, with Cuban leader Fidel Castro in failing health and Democrats in control of Congress, lawmakers will scale back trade and travel embargoes on the communist island.
Rangel, a New York Democrat, introduced a measure January 24 to end the US ban on travel to Cuba. He and others say they will offer measures to relax limits on sending money to Cuba and payment restrictions on the sale of farm goods.
"Being in the majority, I think we can be successful this year," Rangel said in an interview. Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, and all but one of the new House committee chairmen voted in the past for easing the embargo, according to the US-Cuba Trade Association.
An end to the almost 50-year-old trade barriers may open a $1 billion-a-year export market for US goods and revive Havana as an attraction for US tourists about 100 miles off the Florida coast. President George W. Bush opposes lifting the embargo. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez says Cuba first must free political prisoners and allow free enterprise and opposition political parties.
Because of the embargo companies such as San Antonio-based Valero Energy Corp. can't refine oil from Cuban offshore oil tracts. Wayzata, Minnesota-based Cargill Inc. currently faces restrictions on grain sales and Pernod Ricard SA can't sell its Havana Club rum in the US.
Both sides are girding for battle, increasing campaign contributions, hiring lobbyists and accompanying lawmakers on visits to the island. Backers of change say they are trying to lay the groundwork for ending the embargo in 2009, after Bush leaves office and Castro, 80, likely will be out of power.
"When Fidel dies, you'll see the politics of this change," said Dan Erikson, director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue, an independent Washington-based research institution. "What you'll see this year is fiddling at the edges, but that fiddling is important."
Farm groups are leading efforts for change. In 2000, the US opened the way for food sales to Cuba; those sales rose to as much as $391 million in 2004. Sales probably fell for the second straight year in 2006, and the USA Rice Federation, based in Arlington, Virginia, blames US Treasury rules that require Cuba to pay in advance.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana, whose panel oversees trade legislation, will propose revamping those rules this year, his spokeswoman Carol Guthrie said.
Massachusetts Democrat William Delahunt, a longtime foe of the embargo, led a delegation of ten lawmakers to Cuba last month. He came back convinced that a dramatic change in Cuba's political system isn't imminent, no matter Castro's health.
He plans a measure to allow Cuban-Americans to visit the island without having to first obtain a special license from the US government. "It has support," Delahunt said in an interview. "The Cuban community is changing, and it's dawning on the people in Miami that American influence is nonexistent" in Cuba.
Representative Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who traveled with Delahunt to Cuba, is setting his sights even higher. Once Castro dies, "you'll see a successful removal of the travel ban," Flake said in an interview. Flake joined Rangel in introducing the measure to end the travel ban.
Cuban emigrants, one of the most united and politically savvy voting blocks in the country, are lining up to keep the embargo.
"It will be a battle," said Nicolas Gutierrez, a lawyer representing Cubans who say Castro confiscated their property.
"With the Republican Congress we had the congressional leaders on our side. Now it's going to be a lot harder." The US-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, which opposes opening trade relations with the Castro government, gave $606,924 to more than 100 congressional candidates during the last election campaign, according to PoliticalMoneyline, a Web site that tracks political contributions.
The amount is more than double the group's spending in the 2004 election, and it increased support to Democrats to 45 percent of its contributions from 28.5 percent.
Gutierrez is also president of the National Association of Sugar Mill Owners of Cuba, a group that represents owners who lost their property in Cuba. US companies and individuals have filed claims with the State Department for $2 billion in lost assets. Cuban-Americans say more than $50 billion in property was taken from them.
The Bush administration, which has tightened the 2000 law that allowed agricultural sales, limited travel visas and made it tougher to send money to family members in Cuba, is dug in against easing the restrictions.
"We should not change our policy, we should not change our law, especially now that there is change in the air" in Cuba, Commerce Secretary Gutierrez, a native of Cuba, said in a January 24 interview. "We have seen over a long period of time that there is real wisdom in our policy."
Flake and Delahunt say the congressional initiatives may prompt the administration to offer minor changes on travel and remittances. If not, lawmakers say they plan to use spending bills to try to force the president to accept modifications.
Bush "is out of step with most members of Congress," said Kirby Jones, president of the US-Cuba Trade Association, which represents companies such as Cargill Inc. and Caterpillar Inc.
"You are going to have initiatives in Congress on travel, and the administration is going to be put in a bind."