May 8, 1998

Easing of Cuba Trade Embargo Sought


By Tom Raum
.c The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - A wide array of humanitarian, church, farm and business groups urged Congress Thursday to ease the 38-year trade embargo on Cuba. But the Clinton administration said its support of the sanctions remains unchanged, despite a recent loosening of some restrictions.

``If we want to see fundamental change in Cuba, pressure is necessary,'' Michael Rannenberger, the State Department's coordinator for Cuban affairs, told the trade subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee.

President Clinton is willing to consider supporting a relaxation of the sanctions only if President Fidel Castro's government moves toward democracy. ``Cuba has not done so,'' he said.

Rannenberger was noncommittal on a measure before the panel that would lift restrictions on the sale of food and medicine to Cuba. But he said Clinton was willing to ``work with Congress on bipartisan legislation'' aimed at achieving humanitarian goals.

Rep. Joe Moakley, D-Mass., a sponsor of the food-and-medicine bill, said the U.S. embargo has brought untold suffering to the Cuban people and created a health care crisis because U.S.-made medical devices widely available elsewhere in the world can't be obtained easily on the communist island.

Congressional supporters of the embargo, including three Cuban-American lawmakers, charged that the hearing was rigged against them - with 14 private-sector witnesses scheduled to speak in favor of easing the embargo and none in opposition. ``Fairness is totally lacking in this hearing,'' said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.

She urged the embargo be maintained.

``There is no openness of any kind in Cuba. The Castro regime has repeatedly stated that the revolution and his regime will not change,'' she said.

The hearing came a day after the Pentagon submitted a report to Congress concluding that Cuba was not a national security threat to the United States in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet empire.

Witnesses told the committee that a militarily weakened Cuba presented a good opportunity to start to lift the trade sanctions, particularly following Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba in March.

``The only material contribution arising from the continuing unilateral U.S. embargo of Cuba... was to confer quasi-martyr status on Castro's regime by permitting its subjects to focus on an external enemy, namely, the United States,'' Minneapolis businessman Richard E. O'Leary said in testimony submitted in behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Also calling for easing the restrictions were representatives from the European-American Business Council, the United States Catholic Conference, U.S. Wheat Associates, the Medical Device Manufacturers Association and the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

No one, other than members of Congress, spoke in favor of keeping the embargo.

``To present 14 witnesses on one side of any issue without adequately presenting dissenting views does a disservice not only to the issue of Cuba but also to the credibility of the committee,'' Frank Calzon, executive director of Free Cuba, which supports the embargo, said in a letter.

In the May 7 letter to subcommittee Chairman Phillip Crane, R-Ill., Calzon said he learned of the hearing ``the day before yesterday.''

Responding to such criticism, Crane said, ``All sides had an opportunity to testify.'' He said the hearings were publicly announced on April 21. As of Wednesday, only two groups had asked to speak for continuing the embargo - and they both bowed out at the last minute, he said.

Rannenberger, the administration witness, conceded that the embargo did not appear to be having much affect on Castro's government. ``It has not been successful,'' he said. ``But what is the alternative?''

Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, the senior Democrat on the panel, applauded Clinton's decision after the pope's visit to announce the easing of some U.S. restrictions on aid. Clinton's actions included permitting Cuban-Americans to send money to relatives in Cuba, making it easier to visit them and providing humanitarian supplies.

Rangel asked the State Department official if the administration planned ``other positive steps toward normalization?''

``This is not a step toward normalization,'' Rannenberger said.

AP-NY-05-07-98 2351EDT


Copyright 1998 The Associated Press.




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