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.

Ronald Reagan “allowed Americans with backpacks to travel in Eastern Europe, and it did help bring down the Berlin Wall,” said conservative Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., chief sponsor of the language easing the travel restrictions.

‘Economic Freedom’

“Personal freedom follows economic freedom,” said Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who conceded that lifting the food embargo would help his farm-state constituents.

Sales of medicine to Cuba have been allowed since 1992 with certain restrictions.

As a result of an easing of travel restrictions last year by the Clinton administration for students, athletes, artists and others, the government says about 82,000 Americans flew to Cuba last year. That was a 47 percent over the 55,900 who did so in 1998.

Under last month’s agreement between House GOP leaders and Nethercutt, Americans could sell food and drugs to Cuba, Libya, Iran, Sudan and North Korea. But Cubans would be required to pay for them with cash or with credit from a third country.

The prohibition against financing by the U.S. government or U.S. banks was seen by many critics, including some farm-state lawmakers, as meaning that little trade would actually occur as a result of the agreement.

That agreement would also write into law an existing ban on U.S. tourist travel to Cuba.

The Clinton administration decided a year ago to allow sales of food and medicine to Iran, Libya and Sudan but was barred by law from easing the embargo on Cuba.

The provisions the House debated Thursday were offered as amendments to a measure financing the Treasury Department and other smaller agencies in the coming fiscal year. The overall bill was approved by 216-202.

The Senate version of the bill has no language affecting trade with Cuba.