November 24, 1998

White House considers plan for commission to carry out a bipartisan review

By Frank Davies, Herald Staff Writer
Published Tuesday, November 24, 1998, In The Miami Herald

WASHINGTON -- Emboldened by 21 senators and prominent Republicans calling for a thorough review of U.S. policy toward Cuba, White House officials are considering a proposal to create a bipartisan commission to do that -- despite the political risks involved.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright plans to meet this morning with the three Cuban Americans in Congress to discuss U.S.-Cuba issues, and the recent push for a commission is sure to come up.

James Rubin, State Department spokesman, said Monday that ``we see some merit in the idea, provided the mandate and the membership and terms were discussed.''

Embargo's the key issue

For more than a month the White House has held a letter signed by 12 Republicans in the Senate and supported by former GOP officials, including three ex-secretaries of state -- Henry Kissinger, George Schultz and Lawrence Eagleburger. The essence of their message: Take a hard look at the U.S. embargo against Cuba and whether it is effective.

``More and more Americans are becoming concerned about the far-reaching effects of our policy on U.S. interests and the Cuban people,'' wrote Sen. John Warner, R-Va., in a letter to President Clinton signed by such conservative Republicans as Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

Sandy Berger, Clinton's national security advisor, said recently that Warner's recommendation ``is under review.'' A spokesman for Vice President Al Gore, Tom Rosshirt, said Monday that Gore and other members of the administration's foreign policy team are carefully studying it.

Economic agenda alleged

But the three Cuban Americans in the House say that the idea for a commission comes with an economic agenda -- corporate interests, represented by Kissinger and other Republicans, coveting the Cuban market. Kissinger, for example, sits on the board of Continental Grain, which sent executives to Cuba in March to attend a business summit with government officials.

``The people pushing this have big dollar signs on their foreheads,'' said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican.

Rep. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, noted that many of the Republican senators who signed the letter are from agricultural states where farming interests don't want to be shut out of Cuba.

Possible political cost

Menendez also cited a political cost if the Democratic administration takes any move away from a hard line on Cuba: ``I don't see any point in us [Democrats] just chalking off Florida and New Jersey and still having a good chance of winning'' the next presidential election.

Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, said, ``Gore clearly has the power to stop this commission.''

Some students of Cuba policy say, however, that the time may be right for a shift in policy -- and a commission backed by high-profile Republicans may be the way to do it.

`The timing is good'

``The timing is good, and this would give the administration the political cover it needs,'' said Shawn Malone, the associate director of the Caribbean Project at Georgetown University. ``The mere creation of a commission would not hurt Gore if they did it in a balanced way.''

Sen. Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat with close ties to the White House, doesn't think any major shift in policy is imminent. And he said that Cuba issues, such as the Helms-Burton Act tightening economic pressure on the island, have been thoroughly debated in Congress.

``What is it about Cuba policy that warrants this unique method, outside normal channels, to handle it?'' he said Monday. ``I don't see it.''

Some of the backers of the commission say the embargo is a relic that has failed to dislodge Castro, and that such a panel could study a wide range of policy options dispassionately.

And one former high-ranking official in the Bush administration, Brent Scowcroft, said in a recent interview that Cuba ``is a domestic issue for the United States and not a foreign policy issue.

``It focuses more on votes in Florida than it does on what to do with Castro,'' said Scowcroft, Bush's national security advisor. ``We're not going to kill him with the embargo.''

Donna Leinwand of The Herald's Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

Copyright © 1998 The Miami Herald


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