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Posted May 01, 2003 by publisher in Cuba Travel

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BY TIM JOHNSON | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

WASHINGTON -A bipartisan group of eight senators on Wednesday presented a bill that would open up Cuba to U.S. tourism and allow American citizens to spend dollars freely there.

‘‘If we allow more and free travel to Cuba, if we increase trade and dialogue, we take away [Cuban leader Fidel] Castro’s ability to blame the hardships of the Cuban people on the United States,’’ Sen. Michael B. Enzi, a Wyoming Republican, told his colleagues.

Enzi labeled as ‘‘deplorable’’ a crackdown in Cuba since mid-March that has seen some 75 pro-democracy activists and journalists arrested and sent to jail for up to 28 years. But he said Castro would face a greater threat from an onslaught of U.S. tourism than from the four-decade-old embargo.

Joining Enzi in co-sponsoring the bill were fellow Republicans Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Larry Craig of Idaho, and Democrats Max Baucus of Montana, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Mark Dayton of Minnesota, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Tim Johnson of South Dakota.

Meanwhile, in a blow to Cuban hopes of improving its economy, the European Commission decided to shelve a bid by Cuba to join the so-called Cotonou Agreement, a trade pact that offers economic assistance to more than 70 developing nations. The move is one of the first concrete steps taken by any nation or bloc against Cuba in an effort to pressure the government to roll back its recent wave of repression.

A spokesman for the commission said it did not wish to remain silent in view of the ‘‘strong and grave deterioration of the political situation’’ that had taken place in Cuba recently..

He added that “as long as there is no change in the situation, it should be evident that the commission will have no reason to change its decision.’‘

Membership in the Cotonou agreement has been eagerly sought by Cuba for years, both for the practical economic benefits it would confer and because it would send a symbolic message of acceptance as a partner in a worldwide economic organization sponsored by the European industrial democracies.

By the same token, the suspension of consideration—a step short of outright rejection—represents a real setback. It came on the eve of one of Cuba’s biggest political holidays, May 1, recognized in Cuba and elsewhere as a celebration of the labor movement. Castro has promised to put millions of demonstrators in the streets of Havana today to show support for the leadership.

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, efforts to relax the U.S. embargo—or even scrap it altogether—have surged since the late 1990s. Bipartisan legislators from states with large agricultural industries eager to sell to Cuba have pushed to suspend embargo provisions.

But Republican floor leaders, particularly House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, backed by the White House, have derailed bills to relax the embargo for the last three years, and vow to do so again this year.

The crackdown in Cuba triggered worldwide condemnation and chilled hopes of U.S. agricultural and business leaders seeking to relax the U.S. embargo.

Those hopes had grown since late 2001, when the Castro regime started a spending spree that has now amounted to about $170 million for U.S. foodstuffs. Such cash purchases of agricultural goods from U.S. suppliers are allowed under three-year-old trade reforms.

Existing restrictions block U.S. travel to Cuba unless citizens obtain Treasury Department licenses or fall under exempt categories covering people like journalists, diplomats and humanitarian workers. Violators receive fines that average around $7,500.

In related developments:

A State Department report issued Wednesday reiterated charges that the Castro regime has attempted to sandbag U.S. efforts to fight global terrorism.

‘‘On repeated occasions,’’ the report said, “Cuba sent agents to U.S. missions around the world who provided false leads designed to subvert the post-Sept. 11 investigation.’‘

The Vatican said Wednesday that its dialogue with the Cuban government will continue even though Pope John Paul II was ‘‘disillusioned’’ by Havana’s recent crackdown on dissidents.

This report was supplemented with material from Herald wire services.

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