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Some US Lawmakers Press for Opening to Cuba - 2002-03-21

A group of U.S. lawmakers opposed to the trade embargo against Cuba are pressing for a broader opening to the communist-led island.

The House of Representatives' Cuba Working Group has 34 members, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Organizers believe additional lawmakers will join in the coming weeks.

The group is seeking to lift the travel ban to Cuba and to allow private financing for agricultural sales to the island.

The group's leader, Arizona Republican Congressman Jeff Flake, says the best way to bring about democratic change in Cuba is through engagement, not isolation. "Average American citizens are our best diplomats," he said. "They represent our culture, our character and our ideals. Unfortunately we have isolated the Cuban people and so the only voice they hear is Castro's."

Democratic Congressman William Delahunt of Massachusetts agrees that the four-decades-old embargo has failed. "It has failed the Cuban people because it certainly has not brought more freedoms to them, nor has it created more political space," he said. "But as importantly, it has failed the American people, because as my colleague has indicated it has restricted one of our fundamental constitutional rights, the right to travel."

Mr. Delahunt said it is ironic that while Americans are barred from visiting Cuba, they can travel to Iran and North Korea, two countries named by President Bush as part of an axis of evil.

More than 100,000 Americans visited Cuba last year with special licenses. Some 60,000 others traveled there illegally, and many of them received thousands of dollars in fines by the Treasury Department, which has increased its enforcement of the law.

The House of Representatives voted last July to lift the travel ban. The Senate has yet to act on the measure.

On the issue of private U.S.-based financing of agricultural sales to Cuba, the working group believes that proposal could result in $130 million of new U.S. exports and thousands of new jobs.

Such a plan is included in the Senate version of this year's farm bill, but not the House version. A joint conference committee will have to decide whether to accept or reject the provision.

But any easing of the trade embargo against Cuba has been vehemently opposed by the politically influential Cuban-American community, based largely in Florida.

President Bush, who enjoys strong support among Cuban Americans, has vowed to strengthen the embargo against Havana. An administration review of U.S. policy toward Cuba is expected to be released in the coming weeks.