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Posted February 15, 2004 by publisher in US Embargo

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DAVID SARASOHN | [url=http://www.oregonlive.com]http://www.oregonlive.com[/url]

R ep. Butch Otter, R-Idaho, learned something about Cuba even before traveling there this month.

He found out why it was so hard for Americans to go to the island.

“I always thought it was the Cubans telling us we couldn’t go,” the congressman said in a phone interview Friday. It turned out the problem is the U.S. government.

“What they’re telling us is we’ve picked one country in the world where you can’t go, and that’s Cuba. I could have gone to Baghdad the day before we started bombing. I could go to North Korea tomorrow.
“That’s the only place in the world where I as a free citizen can’t go.”

Otter greatly dislikes being told that as a free citizen he can’t do something, which gets him into arguments with both the Environmental Protection Agency and Attorney General John Ashcroft’s Justice Department. So he and the equally conservative Idaho Sen. Larry Craig went to Cuba and decided travel is just one part of U.S. Cuban policy that has to change.

“We’ve had this policy on Cuba for 40 years,” Otter said, “and it really doesn’t work.”

Craig, visiting Cuba with Otter and 15 representatives of Idaho businesses ready to deal with Cuba, reached a similar conclusion. A reversal of the travel ban, the senator told the Lewiston Morning Tribune from the island, “will become law,” and 2005 will be “the year when we see significant change toward the betterment of our relationships.”

The feeling that banning trade and travel to Cuba will cause Fidel Castro’s regime to collapse at any moment—a moment expected since 1961—is now the subject of bipartisan disbelief. In the House of Representatives, Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., on the right, and Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., on the left, co-chair a Free Travel to Cuba Caucus.

On most things, the gap between Flake and Delahunt is wider than the 90 miles between Florida and Cuba.

In fact, it seems the policy’s failure is ignored in only two places: South Florida and the Bush administration.

Last week, as two of the more conservative Republicans in Congress returned from Cuba and declared that the policy needed to be softened, a senior administration official went to South Florida and told Cuban Americans that it was being toughened. Treasury Secretary John Snow warned that Americans dealing with Cuban-owned travel agencies could face criminal charges, that customs agents would be cracking down on travelers to Cuba and that the government would be taking another hard look at money sent by Cuban Americans to relatives in Cuba.

“The president detests, the president loathes the Cuban government and what it stands for,” Snow assured his audience.

On the other hand, he’s very fond of the Cuban American vote in a state that was, some people may recall, fairly close in the 2000 election.

So if a policy has failed for 40 years, try it again, harder.

After actually going to Cuba, the 83rd country he’s visited, Otter thinks it’s time for a new direction. He’s traveled the world as president of Simplot International, the Northwestern potato conglomerate, and as lieutenant governor of Idaho, and he’s concluded, “The more you engage in commerce with people, the more you engage in philosophical discussion.”

In other words, engagement with Cuba might be a better plan than isolation. Otter quotes foreign policy authority Hans J. Morgenthau: When food doesn’t cross borders, troops will.

Otter and Idaho, of course, also have some food they’d like to sell.

Besides, whatever Americans have insisted for four decades, Otter’s not sure the 78-year-old Castro’s demise is imminent. “We met with him for about three hours, and, boy, he didn’t stop talking. Whatever we talked about, he was up to speed on, or at least seemed to be up to speed on.”

What’s going to change the policy?

“I believe it takes leadership that understands the value of people communicating with other people,” Otter said. “I’m confident that (Sen. Larry Craig) and I will put a case to the State Department, to the White House, saying that we could advance peace in the hemisphere.”

Maybe the White House will listen.

Maybe after Florida votes this fall.

David Sarasohn, associate editor, can be reached at 503-221-8523 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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