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Sanctions Against Cuba: The Beginning Of The End?

Washington Outlook


On the surface, the U.S. embargo on Fidel Castro's retro-Marxist regime in Havana seems as tight as ever. The Senate voted on July 15 to exempt humanitarian aid from U.S. trade sanctions--but kept in place the heavy restrictions on aid imposed on Cuba and other nations accused of backing terrorism. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) crowed that the vote was a "resounding reaffirmation" of U.S. efforts to isolate Cuba.

But U.S. business execs are betting that after nearly 40 years, the economic freeze may finally melt. Since January, when Pope John Paul II called for lifting the embargo, companies have seen hopeful signs. The Clinton Administration has taken small steps to ease up on Havana. Congressional votes to lift food and medicine export curbs on India and Pakistan point to growing disenchantment with all unilateral sanctions. And Capitol Hill's anti-Castro fervor may be waning as Cuban-American support for the embargo erodes. "There's a lot of motion on this issue," says Kirby Jones, head of Alamar Associates, a Washington consulting firm that held a U.S.-Cuba business summit in March and plans another in September.HAVANA SHOWS. Corporate interest has soared in the wake of the Pope's visit. Some 40 major companies attended Alamar's spring meeting, including Mobil, Texaco, Caterpillar, Continental Grain, and Bristol-Myers Squibb. Overall visits to Cuba by U.S. business reps this year are expected to jump to 2,500 from 500 in 1994 and 2,000 last year, says John S. Kavulich II, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade & Economic Council. And come January, P.W.N. Exhibicon International of Westport, Conn., which held trade exhibitions in Russia in the 1970s and in China in the '80s, hopes to be ahead of the curve again with a medical industry trade show in Havana.

The White House is trying to expand exports under current law to pave the way for ending the embargo. One example: medical supplies, which are now permitted with special licenses and monitoring. In a private letter in June, the Commerce Dept. said it would look favorably on applications to export experimental drugs for testing in Cuban labs. SmithKline Beecham is expected to receive approval soon for a U.S. unit to test a meningitis B vaccine developed in Cuba. The industry hopes cumbersome export rules "are going to go away or be significantly simplified," says W. Bradford Gary, a vice-president at medical-device maker Allergan Inc."A FRESH LOOK." Lawmakers are starting to heed the growing pressure from business. Some 130 House members and 30 senators are co-sponsoring measures to take food and medical products off the embargo. Says Senator Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.): "People on both sides of the aisle are willing to take a fresh look at Cuba." The bills have the backing of a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored group called Americans for Humanitarian Trade with Cuba, which includes such luminaries as former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker.

The fate of the bills depends on how fast the pro-embargo feeling among Cuban Americans fades. Dario Moreno, a Florida International University political science professor, believes support for the embargo has dropped from 80% before the Pope's visit to 65% and keeps dwindling. If that number shrinks further, President Clinton would likely take new steps, such as lifting travel restrictions for U.S. tourists. That's a top business goal.

A high White House official says the business campaign to lift the embargo would get a boost if Castro were to make a move toward political liberalization. Corporate reps can't do much about that. But working with the Clintonites, they may see sanctions on Havana lifted sooner than once seemed possible.By Stan Crock

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