by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
major storm is brewing in Congress -- and especially within the Republican Party -- over the future of the 40-year U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.
Defying predictions, a key committee in the House of Representatives voted by a substantial margin this week to lift sanctions against the sale of food and medicine against countries on the State Department's terrorism list, including Cuba. The measure is part of a larger agricultural bill.
The House Appropriations Committee voted 35-24 to defeat an amendment backed by Republican Whip Tom DeLay of Texas that would have stripped from the 2001 agricultural appropriations bill the provision on lifting the sanctions.
Now DeLay, who formally ranks second in the House Republican leadership but whom many people consider the most powerful Republican lawmaker in the lower chamber, is expected to try to prevent the same provision from being voted on by the entire House next week.
Veterans of Cuba policy were stunned by the result. One year ago, the same provision was defeated in the Appropriations Committee. "Frankly, we didn't expect this margin," said one farm lobbyist who favors the measure.
"This shows we're gaining ground on the anti-sanctions argument in general, and the Cuba argument in particular, and that the Cuban-American hard-liners are losing ground," said Geoffrey Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a human rights group which also supports lifting sanctions against Havana.
Thale attributed the result in major part to the recent controversy over Elian Gonzalez, the six-year-old shipwrecked Cuban boy, who remains a cause celebre for hard-line Cuban-Americans opposed to his return to the custody of his father, Jose Miguel Ramirez, who lives in Cuba.
Elian, whose asylum case was heard by a federal appeals court in Atlanta Thursday, was taken forcibly by immigration agents last month when Miami relatives refused to obey a federal order to surrender him to authorities so he could be reunited with his father who had flown to the United States to reclaim his son.
The father and son are currently living with other Cuban friends and family at an isolated conference centre on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay outside Washington. They are awaiting a judgement by the court on whether Elian had the right to submit an asylum petition made out on the child's behalf by his great-uncle in Miami.
case and his seizure by federal authorities, which dominated media news coverage for weeks, resulted in some violent demonstrations against the Justice Department in Miami, despite the fact that some two-thirds of the U.S. public as a whole supported Washington's decision to reunite the boy with his father. Roughly the same percentage of the public favors his return to Cuba with his father, according to recent polls.
"The size of this vote shows that people are less afraid than they used to be to oppose the hard-line Cuban-Americans. That's the main result of Elian so far," said Thale. "People saw in a very graphic way both the ineffectiveness of the Cuban-Americans and their extremism, and they were tired of being held hostage to that."
The United States has maintained a more or less comprehensive trade embargo against Cuba since shortly after its revolution. Right-wingers in Congress have even tried, with limited success, to extend the embargo to third-party nations.
The embargo, however, has come under increasing attack in recent years, and especially after the 1998 visit to Cuba by Pope John Paul II who condemned it.
A loose coalition of various interests -- including Catholic bishops and other church groups; some human rights and solidarity groups; and some business organizations opposed to sanctions in general and toward Cuba in particular -- has come together over the past two years and has lobbied effectively for exempting food and medicine from the embargo.
Most important has been the influential farm lobby, which hopes to sell millions of dollars in agricultural products to Havana, seen as a potentially promising market of more than 11 million people.
Last year, the Senate voted 78-22 to exempt food and medicine from the embargo. In the House, however, DeLay and influential Cuban-American lawmakers from the Miami area defeated a similar provision in the 2000 agricultural appropriations bill.
As a result, the two versions of the bill had to be reconciled in a conference committee. DeLay, known as "The Hammer" for his lobbying techniques, successfully deleted the controversial provision from the bill, despite the fact that a majority of Republicans on the committee favored the measure.
Using his power and influence over House Speaker Dennis Hastert, DeLay could very well delete the measure in this year's bill before it gets to the floor of the House, and indeed, Hastert reportedly told the provision's chief sponsor, Washington Rep. George Nethercutt, that he may go along with permitting all the other "terrorist" states -- which include Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria -- to gain the exemption, if Cuba is excluded.
But such a move will be more controversial now that the appropriations committee has voted by such a convincing margin to retain the measure and rebuff DeLay and the Cuban-American hard-liners. "At a certain point, parliamentary maneuvering of the kind DeLay would have to resort to kill it would quite clearly be undemocratic," said one Congressional aide.
A similar measure has already been approved by the Appropriations and Foreign Relations committees in the Senate, and most observers predict easy and overwhelming passage in the upper body.
In that event, another conference committee would have to be convened, and, even if DeLay succeeded in stripping Cuba from the appropriations bill, he would again be facing a struggle with the Senate.
Nethercutt has drafted a letter to Hastert calling on him to ensure that the measure is voted on by the entire House when the appropriations bill comes up as early as the end of next week. "I couldn't care less about (Cuban President) Fidel Castro," he said. "I do care about their people and the American farmer."
If the whole House votes on the bill, it could very well pass, according to Thale and other vote-counters. That is why DeLay would prefer to prevent it from coming to the floor.
May 15, 2000 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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