By Jim Brunner | Seattle Times staff reporter
As Republican George Nethercutt campaigns for the U.S. Senate, Democrats frequently mock him as a “rubber stamp” who would blindly follow the orders of the Bush administration. In a typical attack, incumbent Sen. Patty Murray recently sent out a fundraising appeal warning voters not to “send another clone to Washington.”
For the most part, Nethercutt has indeed toed the GOP party line during his decade in Congress. A study by Congressional Quarterly calculates he’s backed the Bush administration on more than 90 percent of votes.
But Nethercutt also has displayed an independent streak on a major foreign-policy issue — the country’s 40-year trade embargo against Cuba.
In 2000, over the objections of top Republicans, Nethercutt shepherded through Congress a historic loosening of the Cuba embargo that has allowed U.S. farmers to sell more than $565 million worth of food to the island nation, including peas and apples from Washington state.
Along the way, Nethercutt allied himself with liberal Democrats, scrapped with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and dined with Fidel Castro in Havana.
“I’d come to Congress with the impression that the only way to change Castro was to freeze him out,” Nethercutt says. “But I came to the realization that unilateral sanctions only hurt America.”
Defying “The Hammer”
Occupation: Congressman representing the Fifth District since 1995; before that, an attorney specializing in family law
Nickname: George the Giant Killer, for his surprise defeat of former House Speaker Tom Foley in 1994
Nethercutt said he was swayed by struggling farmers in Eastern Washington, who complained of being locked out of an important market while their international competitors cashed in.
The matter crystallized for him in 1998, when Pakistan detonated nuclear devices, triggering U.S. trade sanctions that jeopardized sales of Washington wheat to that country. Nethercutt and other farm-state lawmakers moved swiftly to pass legislation exempting food sales from the sanctions.
After that, Nethercutt figured, the logic was inescapable: If farmers could sell to Pakistan, why not Cuba?
The Cuba embargo was imposed in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy after Castro nationalized private businesses, including major U.S. corporate holdings. The goal was to persuade Cubans to overthrow their government.
Embargo opponents have argued it harms U.S. producers while doing nothing to undermine Castro. But supporters, including the vocal Cuban-American community in South Florida, have resisted any backpedaling, citing Castro’s human-rights abuses.
Among the embargo’s steadfast backers are House GOP leaders, particularly DeLay, a Texan nicknamed “The Hammer,” who keeps leather bullwhips in his office.
Nethercutt’s first move against the embargo was barely noticed. He introduced legislation in October 1998 dubbed the “Freedom to Market Act.” It attracted no cosponsors.
U.S. farmers have sold more than $565 million worth of corn, poultry, peas and other commodities to Cuba under the new law.
The following January, Nethercutt pushed his bill again, this time with 32 cosponsors. Using his seat on the Appropriations Committee, Nethercutt tried to attach the measure to an agriculture spending bill. DeLay stepped in, and the amendment was defeated.
In September 1999, Nethercutt was at it again, trying to attach his Cuba measure to a budget bill during negotiations in a House-Senate conference committee. After Nethercutt won several key votes, House Republican leaders shut the committee down ó a breach of legislative etiquette ó and stripped the Cuba language out of the conference committee’s report.
But by that time, DeLay was fighting a losing battle. Nethercutt helped assemble a coalition of farm-state Republicans, liberal Democrats, farmers and human-rights organizations. By November 1999, Nethercutt wrote a letter supporting changes in U.S.-Cuba policy that was signed by 220 members, a majority of the House of Representatives.
In spring 2000, Nethercutt offered his legislation again and successfully resisted efforts by DeLay to strip it out of the agricultural spending bill. It was a bold move, since DeLay was majority whip at the time, meaning his job was to count votes and enforce GOP unity.
“Rank-and-file members don’t roll the whip. For a variety of reasons that’s perceived as untoward,” said Nethercutt aide Rob Neal, who worked on the Cuba legislation.
The final version of the law was hammered out by Nethercutt and his allies in lengthy negotiations with opponents of changes to the embargo.
“He was very aggressive, very persistent, a tough negotiator,” said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican who clashed with Nethercutt on the Cuba legislation.
In a compromise, the final bill, called the Trade Sanctions Reform Act, allowed Cuba to purchase food and medicine from the United States, but only if Castro’s government paid in cash. Nethercutt needed a political victory at the time, faced with the prospect of an ugly re-election fight in 2000 after breaking his well-publicized promise to serve only three terms.
Nethercutt reportedly cited his own political woes during late-night negotiations over the Cuba bill, complaining “I’m going to get clobbered in November,” according The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, which cited unnamed participants in the negotiations.
Nethercutt wound up winning re-election easily despite his term-limits reversal.
Farm groups lauded Nethercutt’s Cuba work. The American Farm Bureau Federation gave him its “Golden Plow” award in 2000.
“You really look for champions, and on the Cuba issue George was the one,” said Tim McGreevey, executive director of the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council.
Critics, however, continue to bash the cash-only provision of the law, saying it inhibits its effectiveness.
“He grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory here,” said Alex Glass, spokeswoman for Murray, who also has supported easing the embargo. “He probably could have had something much stronger had he not caved to the extremists in his party.”
Indeed, Castro at first declared that he would not buy a single grain of rice from the United States, because he found the restrictions insulting.
Dinner with Castro
Nethercutt saw the defiant dictator up close when he visited Cuba in April 2001 with two other members of Congress. They were picked up at the airport and whisked to a four-hour dinner with Castro.
The Cuban dictator, wearing his trademark military fatigues, waved his hands as he lectured the Americans for more than an hour at the multicourse dinner.
Rep. Tom DeLay fought Nethercutt over Cuba.
“He said we won’t buy a grain of product from you until we are treated like every other country who deals in a trade relationship with the United States,” Nethercutt recalled.
“I said, ‘Mr. President, we have done all we can do. There isn’t the political will to do anything further until you step through the door we have opened,’ ” he said.
Castro relented only after Hurricane Michelle devastated parts of the country later that year. The Bush administration offered humanitarian aid to Cuba, and Castro refused the handout, but said Cuba would buy food under the terms of the new law.
“The hurricane came along and provided him a way to back down,” said Philip Peters, a Cuba expert with the Lexington Institute, a free-market think tank.
In December 2001, ships carried chicken thighs and corn to Havana in the first such shipment in four decades.
Since then, sales to Cuba have grown each year. The country imported more than $250 million worth of wheat, poultry, soybeans and other food products from the United States last year.
No bonanza for state
However, Washington state farmers have not seen huge sales from the new market. Cuba announced a $4.5 million purchase of peas and apples from the state in March 2002, a couple months after Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., visited with a U.S. delegation.
That transaction was largely symbolic, said one Cuba expert.
Washington state is “unlikely in the short term to be a substantial source of food products to Cuba,” said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. Cuba prefers to buy cheaper food from Midwestern farm states that are closer to Caribbean ports.
Nationally, meanwhile, Cuba policy remains a touchy political subject. The Bush administration recently imposed new travel restrictions on the nation that were widely seen as a political nod to anti-Castro groups in Florida, the ultimate swing state in the upcoming presidential elections.
Nethercutt said he continues to have a “fundamental disagreement” with the administration’s Cuba policy.
Last month, Nethercutt again broke with the Bush administration, voting to block new limits on gifts by Americans to relatives in Cuba. Washington’s other two Republicans in Congress, Jennifer Dunn and Doc Hastings, sided with Bush.
“I don’t think Florida should make the decision [on Cuba policy] for the rest of the country,” Nethercutt said.