Treasury pledges no change in Cuba policy, despite bill

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 10, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Treasury Department has promised opponents of changes to U.S.-Cuba policy that are tucked into a giant spending bill that some of the most controversial provisions will result in little change.

The Senate was expected to vote later Tuesday on a $410 billion spending bill that contains provisions that would make trade and travel to Cuba easier. But letters from Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has assured the lawmakers who helped block the bill last week that few of the provisions will actually change U.S.-Cuba policy.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., says the pledges were enough to cause him to back the bill. "On the basis of these letters, and on the personal assurances provided by the Secretary of the Treasury, I have been assured by the administration as to the implications and enforcement of these regulations," according to the prepared text of a speech Nelson was to give on the Senate floor.

The most controversial Cuba provision would reverse rules set by President George W. Bush requiring "cash-in-advance" payment from Cuba. But Geithner wrote that "exporters will still be required to receive payment in advance of shipment and will not be permitted to export to Cuba other than through third-party banks."

Another provision would make it easier to travel to Cuba under the guise of selling food and medicine in the country. Geithner wrote in the letter that such travel would be limited, writing that only a "narrow class of businesses would be eligible, under a new general license, to travel to Cuba to market and sell agricultural and medical goods."

"Any business using the general license would be required to provide both advance written notice outlining the purpose and scope of the planned travel and, upon return, a report outlining the activities conducted,'' Geithner wrote.

The assurances from Treasury are likely to pave the way toward passage of the $410 billion spending bill that was blocked last week by Nelson, U.S. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and other senators opposed to the scope of spending in the bill.

A spokesman for Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., who worked with Menendez to rally opposition to the Cuba changes, said Tuesday, "It appears Treasury is addressing the most egregious of these provisions, fixing the problem.''

Apparently left intact in the bill, which expires in September, is the defunding of enforcement of rules that prevent Cuban-Americans from visiting relatives in Cuba more than once every three years. Such travel would still be illegal, but Treasury wouldn't be allowed to spend money to enforce the rule.

President Barack Obama has said he supports increased family travel and Nelson said he too supports efforts to allow annual visits to relatives on the island.

"While there has been disagreement within this body in the past over the most effective way for the U.S. to help the Cuban people, I believe that if there is to be a new strategy towards Cuba then it must come from our Commander-in-Chief, not from the tinkering of a few lawmakers inserting language in a must-pass appropriations bill without any opportunity for debate,” according to Nelson's prepared remarks.

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