WASHINGTON — The House on Friday rejected an initiative to ease restrictions on U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba, virtually burying any chance that U.S. policy toward the island could be relaxed by Congress this year.
By a 245-182 margin, the House voted down an amendment presented by Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., that would have allowed Cuban officials to travel to the United States to inspect U.S. export facilities and products and let Cubans make direct payments to U.S. banks for any purchases.
The initiative, inserted as an amendment to a broader farm bill, would also have allowed the Cuban government to pay for goods after they are shipped from a U.S. port, rather than before as now required.
The vote is especially significant because opponents of the Bush administration's tough line on Cuba believed a powerful coalition of agricultural interests teamed with a Democratic majority in Congress would this year chip away at U.S. restrictions on trade with and travel to Cuba.
Proponents of change also hoped that the Democratic majority would be more skeptical of U.S. policies toward Havana, and that Fidel Castro's long illness would spur U.S. lawmakers to modify U.S. policies toward the communist government.
But these aspirations fell flat as Cuban-American lawmakers and their allies went on the offensive, arguing U.S. policy should not be changed until a democratic transition gets under way in Cuba. Last month, the House rejected a proposal to slash a Bush administration plan to boost aid to Cuban opposition groups, and declined to even allow amendment votes on travel restrictions, citing procedural reasons.
"The signal is very clear that the tables have turned on the Cuba debate in Congress," a jubilant Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., told The Miami Herald after the vote. "Our fears were not realized when people said now all pro-Castro amendments will be passed and totally change U.S.-Cuba policy."
"This vote was pivotal; this vote was monumental," she added. Opponents "could put up their amendments but now people are on record as supporting a path that is not economic engagement with a regime that oppresses its people."
The Cuban government has repeatedly complained that U.S. restrictions made it more expensive for Havana to purchase U.S. medicines and food products. In a speech Thursday, Raul Castro said the Bush administration has "acted with special viciousness" and called the financing requirements "an extraterritorial imposition of U.S. laws."
According to a recent report by the U.S. International Trade Commission, an independent government agency that studies trade-related issues, lifting some U.S. restrictions would boost U.S. exports to the island by between $176 million and $350 million.
U.S. food and medicines exports to Cuba have been permitted since 2000. American farmers became the largest suppliers of foodstuffs to Cuba in 2004. However, in recent years Cuban purchases have dipped. U.S. exports to the island totaled $338 million in 2006.
Cubans still rely on ration cards to buy many food items. Raul Castro has said the Cuban economy needs an overhaul to provide better livelihoods for its citizens, though he blames the hardships on the United States.
The ITC estimated that the restrictions the Rangel bill sought to overturn added between 2.5 percent and 10 percent to Cuba's cost of buying U.S. agricultural goods.
In the past, Cuban-American lawmakers and their allies declined to challenge agricultural amendments on Cuba in a floor vote because agriculture was a sensitive issue for lawmakers from farming communities, Ros-Lehtinen said. But she said Rangel "overreached" by adding banking and other provisions in his bill.
Rangel called his amendment "a real win for America, a real win for American farmers and a real win for democracy." He criticized the embargo as "truly ineffective" and said it had less to do with communism and more with Florida politics.
Opponents of the amendment argued the initiative would provide Cuba, deemed by the State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism, direct access to U.S. banks, and that Havana would use the visas for its inspectors to infiltrate spies into the United States.
The defeat is also significant because Rangel is the powerful chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees trade matters. Ros-Lehtinen credited Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., for swaying many Democrats on Cuba.
"She really pulled a lot of Democratic votes for us," Ros-Lehtinen said. "She was just a tiger on this bill."
On the floor debate, Wasserman Schultz said the amendment "needlessly adds a volatile political issue to this (agriculture) bill."
(c) 2007, The Miami Herald.
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