By Pablo Bachelet | Reuters
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Opponents of the U.S. embargo against Cuba are reeling following a recent crackdown against dissidents by Fidel Castro, even as the White House looks for ways to punish Cuba for the repression.
A handful of bills to ease trade and travel restrictions in the pipeline now have little chance of advancing this year, Cuba watchers say, following the sentencing of 75 dissidents to long prison terms and the execution of three men for trying to hijack a ferry to flee to the United States.
George Nethercutt, a Republican congressman from Washington state who favors more trade ties with Cuba, told Reuters on Friday that easing the embargo now “would be perceived the wrong way, somehow condoning what Castro has done.”
Nethercutt is a member of the influential bipartisan Cuba Working Group in the house. His view “reflects the (current) flavor of many of the members of the working group,” he said.
This contrasts with statements from congressional leaders before Castro launched his crackdown in mid-March.
Back in February, Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican who chairs the Senate’s Intelligence Committee, said 71 or 72 senators and between 275 and 300 representatives could be counted on to “lift restrictions, particularly with regards to trade, possibly travel.”
That was nearly enough to overturn a White House veto against the bills, which the Bush administration has threatened against any anti-embargo initiatives.
But embargo foes were deeply dispirited after the arrests and executions, which Havana argues were necessary to stamp out an alleged U.S.-encouraged plot to overthrow the government.
One lobby, the Cuba Policy Foundation, on Wednesday disbanded in protest over the repression. “The regime could not have failed to know that its actions would have a chilling effect on efforts here to ease the U.S. sanctions,” the bipartisan organization said.
EFFORTS FOCUSING ON TRAVEL
Some Congressman still plan to press ahead with anti-embargo legislation. Senator Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, will introduce a bill to lift travel restrictions, which should have a greater chance of passage than a more ambitious proposal introduced earlier this year that sought to overturn the embargo itself.
A spokeswoman for Baucus said the new travel bill was meant to “get a foot in the door.”
Jeff Flake, a Republican congressman from Arizona, plans to introduce his own travel bill soon, arguing through a spokesman that “easing the embargo isn’t any kind of reward for Castro. Ultimately it will be the beginning of the end for him.”
But even easing the travel ban now stands little chance of passage, analysts say. “Obviously, nobody wants to be seen pandering to a tyrant,” said Stephen Johnson, with the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.
Still, the retreat by once-vocal embargo opponents does not mean the way is clear to tighten restrictions, as a way of punishing Castro for his recent acts. Some in the Bush administration have suggested banning remittances to the island, an economic lifeblood for many living there.
However, remittances are “a Faustian bargain,” said Johnson. “Some of the money does end up in the hands of the regime, but at the same time, it gives ordinary Cubans a degree of independence, and they don’t have to rely so much on the state for their needs.”
Similarly, cutting food-for-cash exports would harm U.S. business interests, as would any initiative to limit export licenses or direct flights.
Nethercutt hopes the White House eventually agrees to “maintain the status quo” and “work diplomatically for some easing of the recriminations” against dissidents.