House Eases Restrictions on Cuba

The House voted today to allow unrestricted U.S. food and drug sales to Cuba and let Americans freely travel there. The vote was a major victory for farm, business and other groups trying to ease the four-decade-old sanctions against Fidel Castro’s government.

With supporters arguing that increased contacts would help weaken Castro’s hold over the communist nation, the House voted 232-186 to stop enforcing rules that limit the ability of Americans to travel to Cuba.

It then voted 301-116 to also halt enforcement of rules banning U.S. exports there of food, and of rules limiting sales there of American medicine.

Minutes earlier, lawmakers voted 241-174 to reject a broader proposal by Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., that would have ended enforcement of United States prohibitions against virtually all trading with the Caribbean island nation.

Major Setback for GOP Leaders

Even so, approval of the narrower provisions was a major victory for an alliance of conservative, liberal, business- and farm-state lawmakers. And it was an embarrassing setback for House GOP leaders, who have opposed easing the sanctions.

The Senate approved a separate agriculture spending bill on Thursday that would permit food and medical sales with Cuba and prevent a president from blocking shipments of food and medicine to any country without congressional approval.

But it was unclear whether Thursday’s votes meant that trade sanctions with Cuba would be lifted this year.

“This improves the likelihood we’ll have some sanction reform,” Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., sponsor of the provision easing food and drug restrictions, said after the vote. “But there are many members of Congress, including people in the leadership, who oppose lifting sanctions this year.”

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., has said he thinks the Senate language—and a compromise worked out last month between House leaders and supporters of easing trade sanctions - goes too far.

Clinton’s Backing

President Clinton has supported opening food and drug trade with Cuba.

At a minimum, the votes seemed certain to strengthen the hand of Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., the leader of farm-state lawmakers who earlier this year tried to lift the food and medicine embargo against Cuba and four other countries but ran into opposition by Republican leaders.

The two sides agreed to a compromise last month that House GOP leaders have promised to try pushing into law. Thursday’s votes seemed to increase pressure on the leaders to at least make sure the compromise finds its way into law.

In an interview afterward, Nethercutt did not rule out discussing possible changes in his agreement with the leadership.

“This is an indication the House wants us to have food and medicine commerce with Cuba,” he said.

During the debate, anti-Castro legislators said allowing Cuba to receive more U.S. trade and tourists would help prop up his regime.

Measures Ripped

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said the revenue Cuba would gain from easing the restrictions would help “the worst violator of human rights in all of the Western Hemisphere.”

“Where’s your compassion” for the Cubans and Americans Castro has killed? asked House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who was a chief opponent to Nethercutt’s effort earlier this year.

But sponsors of easing the trade and travel embargoes said the result would be to accelerate the drive toward freedom in Cuba.

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