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Cuba: Pope Re-engergizes U.S. Debate On Sanctions

Washington, 22 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Pope John Paul says the U.S. ought to change its 37-year-long economic embargo against Cuba, but the Pope's first visit to the Communist island 145 kilometers off the southern U.S. coast is only re-energizing the American debate on the issue.

The U.S. first began imposing economic and trade sanctions against Cuba in late 1960 and early 1961 in response to the young revolutionary Fidel Castro's shifting the country to a communist economic system with a totalitarian government.

The resulting flood of Cuban refugees into the nearest U.S. state of Florida, which over the years turned into a potent political force, insured that no American president dared to end the sanctions.

Castro, now 71 years old and the only remaining Marxist dictator in the Western Hemisphere, no longer has the Soviet Union and its allies to keep it afloat financially. But while the U.S. embargo has only gotten tougher over the years, the Cuban economy has managed to limp along, thanks in no small part to the refusal of most of America's allies to honor the sanctions.

A number of American business groups, including the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have recently revitalized their efforts to get the sanctions dismantled.

The chamber says economic embargoes don't work. It's Vice President for International affairs, Willard Workman, says: "An open economy is the first step to democracy."

He says the best thing the U.S. could do to change the Cuban system would be to "send 1,000 American business people to Cuba to cut deals and make it happen."

The chamber recently joined with a number of religious and humanitarian groups in assembling a new coalition to at least get the embargo against food and medical sales to Cuba lifted.

The Chairman of the Chamber's International Policy Committee, Dennis Sheehan, President of AXIA corporation, says "U.S. produced life sustaining products should be freely available for purchase by the people who need them most."

He said the unilateral U.S. sanctions have "done nothing to accelerate the current regime's removal from power," but have divided the U.S. from some of its closest allies, and left American businesses and workers conceding market opportunities to other countries.

U.S. congressman Lee Hamilton (D-Indiana), the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, says the Pope's approach, to visit and engage with Castro and the Cuban people, is "the exact opposite of the American government's."

He says the real national interest for the U.S. is to see a peaceful transition after Castro "and the question is whether the embargo contributes to that or not."

President Bill Clinton said this week that the U.S. wants Cuba to "move toward freedom and openness." His spokesman, Michael McCurry added that Washington hopes the Pope's visit will "hasten the day" in which all human rights are fully respected in Cuba.

While the White House says the U.S. won't lift sanctions until Cuba changes, Clinton has been reluctant to fully employ the most recent U.S. sanction -- the 1996 Helms-Burton act which requires the U.S. government to act against business people in third countries who have any dealings with property that was expropriated by the Cuban government in the early 1960s.

Under this law, the U.S. now bars from entering the country executives of several major international firms in Canada and Western Europe which have businesses in Cuba.

A provision of that law that would allow American citizens to file suit in U.S. courts for monetary damages against foreign firms which in any way use confiscated property has been suspended repeatedly by Clinton ever since its passage. In continuing the suspension for another six months last week, Clinton said he was doing it to strengthen international cooperation in promoting democracy in Cuba.

There is still fierce opposition in the U.S. Congress to any easing of the Cuban sanctions. Senator Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says the president's repeated waiver means he's not enforcing the current law and "abetting profiteers who are propping up Castro at the expense of the Cuban people."

Many in congress in fact want to tighten the sanctions. The chairman of the House International Relations Committee, congressman Ben Gilman (R-New York) says he'll sponsor a new bill to force the president to implement all of the Helms-Burton law.

The Pope may add his voice to the calls for easing or ending the U.S. embargo against Cuba, but the debate in Washington won't really change. As Clinton said in a Cuban independence day statement three years ago, "We maintain the trade embargo against the Castro regime because the United States does not want to do anything that could strengthen the dictatorship." In American politics, it is an argument that usually wins.