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2 Republican Lawmakers Believe US Will Drop Cuba Travel Ban - 2004-02-11

Two Republican U.S. lawmakers, just back from a trade mission to Cuba, believe the United States will drop its ban on Americans' travel to the Caribbean island next year.

Senator Larry Craig and Congressman Butch Otter, both Idaho Republicans, just returned from a four-day trip to Cuba, where they led a trade delegation and signed agricultural agreements with Cuban officials.

The two lawmakers are seeking to lift the ban against travel to Cuba by Americans, arguing it is the best way to bring about democratic change to the communist-ruled island nation.

Senator Craig said "letting the light shine into Cuba will be the single greatest force against Castro and anything he might do against the Cuban people."

Most lawmakers agree. The House of Representatives and Senate last year both approved legislation to lift the travel ban. But the measure was never sent to President Bush, who had vowed to veto it.

The politically-influential Cuban-American community in Florida, a state crucial to Mr. Bush's re-election prospects this year, vehemently opposes any relaxation in the four-decades-old embargo on Cuba.

Bowing to political reality, Senator Craig says the opportunity for lifting the travel ban will come next year, after this November's election. At a Capitol Hill news conference, Senator Craig said he told his Cuban hosts as much. "What I told Cuban officials is that I felt 2005 could become a very productive year for a progressive way of beginning to adjust and change our relationship with Cuba from a legal standpoint," he said.

Senator Craig and Congressman Otter on Saturday signed an agreement with Cuban officials under which Cuba's food import company will buy 10 million dollars worth of Idaho agricultural products, including thousands of tons of potatoes and beans.

The United States in 2000 authorized the sale of food and medicine to Cuba. A year later Cuba began purchasing such items.

Cuba has now signed more than 700 million dollars in food-purchase agreements with U.S. firms.

But many U.S. lawmakers, including Congressman Otter, would like to see U.S. law changed to allow trade in other products. "It is too bad that we have a policy that continues to stop the economic activity that I think we would really be able to engage in with Cuba, because we are limited to food and pharmaceuticals. There are a lot of things we make in Idaho that would help their farming program that would certainly help their education program in terms of high-technology, communications that they could use," he said.

Congressman Otter and Senator Craig are considering legislation to expand U.S. trade with Cuba, and discussed such prospects and other issues with Cuban leader Fidel Castro in a three-hour meeting in Havana on Monday.

Senator Craig offered his observations of the Cuban leader. "It was a fascinating meeting in the sense that he fully engaged us in a very open discussion. He appeared in all aspects to be very robust. He certainly knew his facts and details about every element of program. He talked about the number of calories in a food lunch program served in their schools. He talked about the extended educational program in Cuba with great detail. I think all of us, never having met the gentleman, were impressed to the extent that he knew so many details of individual programs," he said.

Senator Craig and Congressman Otter plan a return visit to Cuba in April to take part in a trade exhibition.