Analysis: Is Cuba embargo on last legs?

By MARCELLA S. KREITER, United Press International  |  Feb. 11, 2002 at 4:27 PM
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The fall of the Berlin Wall didn't do it.

Neither did the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But a little boy who was shipwrecked en route to Miami with his mother just may be responsible for a thaw in relations that could lead to the lifting of trade sanctions against Cuba.

It's been four decades since the United States decided against doing business with Fidel Castro's communist regime.

Do sanctions against the tiny Caribbean nation 90 miles off the cost of Florida still make sense? Did they ever?

More and more people think the answer is no.

"The U.S. Senate and House by their votes have made it clear they favor open trade in food and medicines," said Kirby Jones, the president of Alamar Associates, a consulting firm for companies that want to do business with Cuba. "The votes have proven that. In several votes over the last year-and-a-half the sentiments of both houses have been made very clear.

"Parliamentary maneuvering by the Republican House leadership in particular, supported by the two southern Florida representatives in Congress have essentially stopped the will of the House and the will of the Senate from becoming law."

An end to the Cuban trade embargo has the support of the American Farm Bureau Federation and other agriculture interest groups as well as human rights organizations.

The argument is the sanctions have done nothing to undermine the Castro regime, have hurt U.S. economic interests and imposed serious hardship on the Cuban people.

At issue is a projected $1.5 billion in agriculture sales. This year, Cuba bought $38 million in grain, poultry and other commodities in the wake of Hurricane Michelle. Congress granted what is being described as an exception to the embargo to allow the sales.

"It's a new market. It hasn't existed before," Jones said. "Talk to rice farmers and talk to wheat farmers without markets. Cuba represents a brand new market. They buy about 400,000 tons of rice a year, several hundred thousand tons of wheat.

"If you talk to farmers and the (agriculture) companies, they want this market. Indeed they want any market. They are always looking for markets."

And it would be a good deal for Cuba. Delivery times would be shortened and the commodities would cost less.

That's irrelevant, however, said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who is among those fighting to keep the embargo in place.

"The sanctions that should be lifted are the sanctions Fidel Castro has against the press, the sanctions he has against the free expression of ideas, the sanctions he has against multiple political parties," she said. "Everybody talks about U.S. sanctions. Why don't they talk about Castro's sanctions?"

Ros-Lehtinen brushes aside arguments Washington does business with other regimes that don't adhere to U.S. values.

"I voted against doing business with China. (But) the argument can be made that China does have businesses. I'm not an apologist for China doctrine," Ros-Lehtinen said. "Cuba is not China. China has made reforms. China has banks. China has economic reforms. China has small businesses."

She also argued there is nothing produced in the United States that Cuba cannot buy elsewhere, rejecting the argument that the sanctions hurt the Cuban population. She said any shortages of foods and medicines are Castro's fault, charging he diverts much of what enters the country as humanitarian aid to the military and his cronies.

"People think the Cold War is over. Try saying that to the 11 million people in Cuba," she said. "People die trying to come to the United States."

Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., has likened Castro to Hitler.

But John Skorburgh, a trade economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the United States has a better shot at changing conditions inside Cuba through engagement.

"What we've been doing for the past 40 years really hasn't worked," he said. "When we've gone toward engagement with a country, that has worked better. We could do better helping the citizens of Cuba by trading agriculture than what has happened in the last 40 years."

Realistically, Skorburgh said, he does not see the sanctions being lifted this year, especially with President Bush opposing such action. But he does see two things possibly happening: an end to the travel ban and a change in financing sales to Cuba from requiring a third party as an intermediary to allowing U.S. banks to handle the transactions directly.

Cuba has been chastised as a bad credit risk and Skorburgh acknowledged that.

"They need more dollars. That's the big problem," Skorburgh said. "That's something that could be solved if the tourism ban is lifted."

Illinois Gov. George Ryan has led two trade delegations to Cuba, the first in 1999 and the most recent last month. That first trip marked the first time in four decades a sitting governor had visited the island.

In December, the first shipment of U.S. corn to Cuba since 1963 was sent.

"Today is an historic day in more ways than one for the people of Cuba and the people of Illinois," Ryan said of that shipment -- 24,000 metric tons from Archer Daniels Midland Co. of Decatur, Ill. -- as it began its trip to Cuba from New Orleans.

"We began building a bridge (in 1999) that we hoped would someday improve the conditions of living for the people of Cuba, while at the same time, benefiting the people of Illinois. With this shipment ..., I believe we are doing just that."

Ryan and other governors have been pushing Washington to lift the sanctions.

In testimony before the Senate Finance Committee's international trade subcommittee, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura urged Congress to put politics aside.

"We know that closed doors don't work. We've tried that. For 45 years we've had an embargo to prove that we don't like how Cuba rules," Ventura said.

"Well the joke's on us. Castro has outlasted ... 10 presidents. Communism remains. ...

"Opening the Cuba market won't be a huge money-maker. ... But opening Cuba would demonstrate to regular people at home and our trading partners around the world that commonsense can prevail."

Jones said all the political jockeying is just fine but what really has made a difference in the way Americans perceive Cuba was a waterlogged little boy who lost his mother when she and her boyfriend decided to brave the Straits of Florida in a boat.

"Elian (Gonzalez) was a big factor," Jones said. "Up until Elian, the issue of Cuba was (that) those who thought it important were in Miami, New Jersey and a few other pockets. The American people didn't give a hoot.

"Then Elian arrived ... (and) brought into the homes of the American public an issue about Cuba -- and a very human one, father separated from his son.

"I think people were, quite frankly, shocked at the behavior of the people in southern Florida. There was widespread sentiment that this child belongs with his father. It put the perspective up to that point, which had been in political terms, and presented the issue in a very human way and it changed the equation substantially."

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