Miami lawmakers, CANF reach accord
The lawmakers denounced what one termed a ``blitzkrieg pace'' by advocates of friendly gestures toward Havana in the wake of Pope John Paul II's visit to the island last month and the release this week of Cuban political prisoners.
The issue at hand is a controversial proposal by the Cuban American National Foundation to send U.S. government aid to the island for the first time since the Cuban Revolution in 1959. But in play is something much bigger: what many see as a concerted attempt to undermine the pillar of U.S. policy -- the 36-year-old U.S. trade embargo.
``I think that there's a meeting of the minds that we have to work together,'' said Rep. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat. Critics of isolating the Cuban government, he said, ``are now amassing what is clearly a frontal and a blitzkrieg pace. And we need to respond in kind.''
The foundation, which just two weeks ago unveiled a draft of the Cuban Assistance and Relief Act of 1998, is considering shelving the bill and may pursue the aid program through existing channels, sources said.
And the lawmakers -- Menendez and Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, both Florida Republicans -- who vigorously opposed any change in legislation affecting the U.S. embargo of Cuba, have begun discussing the alternatives with foundation leaders.
The Pope branded the embargo ``ethically unacceptable,'' and a growing coalition of U.S. business leaders, former officials and religious leaders is voicing support for another bill, which would allow the direct sale of food and medicine to the island.
The Cuban government's announced release this week of more than 200 prisoners -- some of them prominent dissidents -- prompted the National Conference of Catholic Bishops to declare Friday that Havana's moves ``clearly call for some reciprocal action on the part of the U.S. government.''
And the Cuban Committee for Democracy, a Miami exile group that is critical of the embargo, said: ``It is now time for all Cubans to unite their efforts and show support for legislation pending in Congress that will `release' food and medicine from the current embargo of Cuba.''
But the administration remained cautious.
State Department spokesman James Rubin welcomed the prisoner release and praised the Pope, but said there are too many unanswered questions for him to characterize the event as truly meaningful. Chief among them are whether prominent political prisoners are exempted from the mass pardon and whether those released will be forced into exile.
``If these releases lead to an increase in the sphere of freedom inside Cuba, they are an important development,'' Rubin said. ``But until we have further information on the scope and conditions of these releases, we cannot fully assess their significance.''
And without specific information, Rubin said, ``we cannot make a judgment whether it is significant enough to justify calibrated responses.''
President Clinton has long vowed to ease elements of U.S. policy toward Cuba in a ``calibrated'' response to steps by President Fidel Castro to allow democratic freedoms and respect human rights.
As architects of the current policy, the Cuban-American lawmakers and the Cuban American National Foundation are concerned that Clinton or members of Congress will seize on the Pope's conciliatory message and support the legislation to allow food and medical sales to Cuba.
That bill, which is sponsored by Rep. Esteban Torres, D-Calif., and Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., has more than 90 House sponsors and 30 Senate backers. While proponents call it a sensible and humane proposal, critics see it as a back-door attempt to gut the embargo and move toward normal relations with Castro.
Dodd has not announced when he will bring his bill up for Senate action, but opponents fear he will seek to capitalize quickly on the Pope's message and are hastening to devise an alternative proposal.
The foundation plan called for maintaining the U.S. trade ban, while donating federal food aid and medical supplies through an independent entity like the Roman Catholic Church. If Castro were to refuse such aid -- and he has already said he would -- then he would be responsible for Cubans' misery, advocates said.
But the Cuban-American lawmakers said that proposal would confuse Americans about the embargo, and they engaged in a rare public spat with the foundation, which had developed the idea with Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Jose Cardenas, a foundation spokesman in Washington, said the exile lobby is determined to make such U.S. aid available to Cuba, even through other means.
``We believe there are still things that we can do to fulfill the objectives of our initiative that will at the same time address everyone's concerns,'' he said.
One idea under consideration would take advantage of a provision in the 1996 Helms-Burton Act that authorizes the President to give humanitarian assistance to victims of political repression and their families, and support democratic groups in Cuba. That provision already funds such groups as the Center For a Free Cuba, which distributes literature and other materials to independent journalists and activists.
Copyright © 1998 The Miami Herald
Copyright © 1998 The Miami Herald