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Democrats: Support Growing in Congress to Ease Cuba Embargo - 2002-05-20

U.S. lawmakers, mostly Democrats, are criticizing President Bush's determination to maintain the U.S. embargo on communist-led Cuba and are vowing to change Washington's policy toward Havana.

Democratic Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, chairman of the subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, noted growing support in Congress for easing the four-decades-old embargo against Havana.

He said his panel would open hearings next month on changing U-S policy toward Cuba.

Mr. Dodd welcomed former president Jimmy Carter's call, made during a visit to Cuba last week, to lift the U.S. embargo and allow Americans to travel freely to the island.

Senator Dodd spoke as President Bush reiterated he would continue the embargo on Cuba until Cuban leader Fidel Castro implements tough political and economic reforms.

Mr. Dodd said Mr. Bush's determination to continue the embargo shows the president is out of step with the Congress and the people they represent.

"The U.S. Congress and the American people are not frozen in the past as would appear that President Bush and Fidel Castro are," he said. "We are working for change, change in our policies. We believe the time has come to try something different."

Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California agreed, saying the embargo has not accomplished what it was meant to do. "First of all, it has not rid Cuba of Fidel Castro. It has not improved the lives of the Cuban people," she said. "It has not influenced any change in policy that would move Cuba toward democracy. Instead, it has only served to strengthen Castro's power and shut the Cuban people out from the rest of the world."

Senator Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota also argued that engagement, not isolation, leads to change, and he noted the United States trades with the communist countries of China and Vietnam.

"I want to bring democracy to Cuba. I guarantee you the quickest way to do that is to open up travel and economic exchanges between the United States and Cuba, and that would be the quickest and most certain way to undermine the Castro regime in Cuba," he said.

Some Republicans agree. Congressman Jeff Flake of Arizona, the chairman of the House Working Group on Cuba, echoed Mr. Dorgan's call for lifting the travel embargo.

In an interview with CNN, Mr. Flake said he does not believe Fidel Castro will heed Mr. Bush's call for free and fair elections or implement the reforms the U.S. president is demanding.

But Republican Congressman Henry Hyde of Illinois, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, called Mr. Bush's speech "a roadmap for a transition to democracy in Cuba". He said the president made a compelling argument that Cuba's lack of economic and political freedom gives the United States no incentive to lift trade sanctions because only Fidel Castro's government will benefit from doing so.

Meanwhile, Senator Dorgan said Mr. Bush's position on Cuba is driven by politics, not policy, a reference to the influence wielded by of the Cuban-American community in Florida.

Cuban-Americans helped hand Mr. Bush a narrow victory in Florida, a state that determined the outcome of the 2000 election.

The president's brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, will need the support of Cuban-Americans for his re-election bid this year, as will President Bush for his re-election effort in 2004.