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US Lawmakers Offer Measure to Ease Embargo Against Cuba

A group of Democratic and Republican lawmakers Thursday introduced legislation that would boost agricultural trade with Cuba and lift the U.S. travel ban to the communist-ruled island nation. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

The United States forbids its citizens from traveling to Cuba or doing business with that country, although Congress in 2000 did authorize limited food and medicine exports there that are purchased with cash.

The Bush administration defends the embargo, put in place in 1962, saying it is necessary to press the communist-led government toward democratic change.

The United States and Cuba do not have diplomatic relations.

But critics, including Republican Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho, say the U.S. embargo has outlived its purpose:

"The only ones who are hurt by our efforts to try to isolate Cuba in trade are our producers here in America," he said. "Those who have benefited are Brazil or China or Vietnam or other places who are glad to step in and pick up these markets."

Senator Crapo is one of several House and Senate lawmakers from both political parties who have introduced two companion bills aimed at easing the embargo by lifting the travel ban and boosting agricultural trade with Cuba.

One bill overturns a 2005 Treasury Department rule that imposed restrictions on agricultural sales to Cuba. Sponsors of the measure say the restrictions, including a requirement that shipments be paid for in full before leaving U.S. ports, have effectively reduced agricultural exports to Cuba.

Senator Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee:

"We not only intend to allow cash-based food sales to Cuba, we mean to promote them," he explained. "Our bill will make these sales cheaper and easier to pursue, especially for smaller exporters, and requires USDA to promote agriculture sales to Cuba just like other growth markets."

The other bill introduced Thursday lifts all restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba. Current law only allows limited travel by Cuban-Americans, religious groups, and academics. All such travel has been severely curtailed by the Treasury Department since 2001.

Previous efforts to lift the ban on trade and travel to Cuba have not succeeded amid White House veto threats.

But Senator Baucus believes there is growing congressional support for easing the embargo on Cuba, and he argues that President Bush, with his low ratings in public opinion polls and about a year and a half left in his term, is wielding less influence with Congress.

"His power in Congress is diminishing by the day, and it is my hope, therefore, that we can get this passed, and we are going to keep working at it until we get it done," he said.

House and Senate committees are expected to take up the legislation in the coming months.