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HavanaJournal.com: Cuba Politics

Election galvanizes Cuba embargo backers

Posted December 12, 2004 by publisher in Cuba Politics.
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BY PABLO BACHELET | Miami Herald

For the first time in years, congressional supporters of the economic embargo against Cuba are prepared to go on the offensive.

After years of fighting defensive maneuvers to keep U.S. sanctions on Cuba intact, changes in Congress and the White House have emboldened pro-embargo legislators to consider more aggressive policies against the island.

The addition of Florida’s Mel Martinez to the Senate, the strengthening of the Republican majority in Congress and Condoleezza Rice’s nomination as secretary of state have shifted the balance of power in favor of the pro-embargo camp, analysts and congressional officials say.

‘‘We’re going to get together and form a coalition with other members of like mind to have a proactive stance . . .’’ said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican.

Ros-Lehtinen, Martínez and Reps. Lincoln and Mario Díaz-Balart, brothers and Miami Republicans, have created a congressional bloc, tentatively named the Cuba Democracy Group, to counter the bipartisan Cuba Working Group, which favors more trade with the island.

Much of the Cuba Democracy Group’s efforts will target freshmen legislators who might be unfamiliar with Cuban issues. In February it will launch an ‘‘adopt-a-prisoner’’ campaign that will invite lawmakers to wear buttons with pictures of political prisoners, their names and prison sentences.

Ros-Lehtinen said the group also will look to curtail U.S. agriculture exports to Cuba and keep U.S. banks from doing business with Fidel Castro’s government. U.S. food and agricultural exports to Cuba totaled $714.5 million from December 2001 to October 2004.

A POSSIBLE TARGET

The group may even nudge the Bush administration to enforce the most controversial provisions of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act—which punishes foreigners for investing in properties confiscated by the communist government. The Clinton and Bush administration each year signed waivers on those provisions because of fierce opposition from Canada and Europe, whose businessmen have invested in some of those properties.

Ros-Lehtinen and the Díaz-Balarts have always worked as a tight-knit group on Cuban issues, often joined by the other Cuban-American in Congress, Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. Ros-Lehtinen said Menendez also would be invited to join the new congressional bloc.

LOGJAM IS BROKEN

On the Senate side, the Cuba Democracy Group will include Sens. George Allen, R-Va., and Rick Santorum, R-Pa., in addition to Martinez.

Until November, a stalemate had prevailed on Cuban issues in Washington for several years.

Almost ritualistically, a congressional majority in the past would vote in favor of moves to ease some of the sanctions on Cuba. But the GOP leadership has blocked the moves in the past two years under threat of a White House veto.

Martinez’s arrival in the Senate could change all that, said Daniel Erikson, who monitors Cuba at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank.

‘‘since the retirement of Jesse Helms in 2002, the Senate has not had a really staunch pro-embargo advocate,’’ he said, adding that many of the Republican freshmen senators are conservatives unlikely to back a change in Cuba policy.

The pro-embargo camp also gained ground in the House in the Nov. 2 elections, with the defeat of several anti-embargo advocates.

Bush’s decision to name Carlos Gutierrez, a Cuban American, as secretary of commerce, and Rice as secretary of state also strengthened the anti-Castro camp, said John Kavulich, who runs the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a New York-based group that monitors commercial relations.

SUPPORT FOR RICE

Ros-Lehtinen described Powell as ‘‘a good soldier’’ on Cuban issues but said she considers Rice, an expert on the former Soviet Union, ‘‘a true believer.’’ in the anti-Castro cause.

The Bush administration already is considering tightening the system that Cuba uses to pay for U.S. food and agricultural imports—changes that would make it much more difficult for U.S. companies to export to the island, a move resisted by business groups and many lawmakers.

For its part, the antiembargo camp is not giving up, especially on its efforts to ease U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba.

‘‘I think as far as travel goes we’ll continue to win,’’ said Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo. “It’s a ridiculous policy to have.’‘

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