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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Business Drives U.S. To Boost Cuba Ties

WASHINGTON -- Driven by pressure from business and labor interests eager to tap Cuba's consumer market and by a growing consensus that U.S. policy is out of date, the Clinton administration and Congress are gradually expanding contacts with one of America's few remaining Cold War foes.

The Senate voted, 70-28, this month to lift restrictions on sales of food and medicine to Cuba. In the wake of the vote, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and Senator Byron Dorgan met in Havana for seven hours with Cuban President Fidel Castro, then returned to Washington to call on the House to pass similar legislation. Daschle is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Cuba in decades.

So far this year, members of Congress have introduced 24 other bills to ease the 36-year economic embargo, which prohibits trade with the communist count ry.

President Bill Clinton's administration, meanwhile, has taken a series of small steps to open channels to Cuba's people, while largely sidestepping Castro's Communist government. These include an agreement in June between U.S. and Cuban counter-narcotics officials to work more closely to combat drug trafficking and measures to make it easier for Americans to visit Cuba, open offices there and send money, food and medicine more freely. The actions reflect a growing consensus in Washington that, after decades in which Cuba policy has been set by Cold War attitudes, the domestic politics underlying that policy are shifting in fundamental ways.

The traditional clout of conservative Cuban American groups, who have opposed any accommodation with Castro, is waning. Labor leaders long hostile to Castro's government are doing an about-face. This month, the AFL-CIO quietly passed a resolution calling for an end to the embargo. And opposition to the embargo is growing among businesspeople, farmers, religious groups and younger Cuban Americans.

None of the administration initiatives falls outside the bounds set in 1992 and 1996 by laws that stiffened the embargo. And administration officials said that they have no intention of pushing the limits set by those laws.

"There's no hidden agenda of normalization. There's no hidden agenda of lifting the embargo. We're saying right out front what we're trying to do and that is a clear expansion of our effort to try to support the Cuban people and to try to get assistance to the Cuban people,'' said one administration official. The tentative agreements to counter the drug trade could foster cooperation between the governments in the future.

On Capitol Hill, the potent combination of farm state economics and the involvement of powerful new business lobbies is causing lawmakers to push further. The vote on food and medical sales marked the first time that significant numbers of Senate Republicans have backed legislation chipping away at the economic sanctions. The legislation was supported by dozens of Republicans who voted for the very laws that have prevented such sales.

Daschle and Dorgan visited the island this month for three days of discussions with Castro and other senior Cuban officials on humanitarian issues and anti-drug efforts.

"It serves neither the U.S.'s nor Cuba's interest to continue the embargo on vital supplies like food and medicine,'' Daschle said on his return.

This month, Farm Bureau Federation President Dean Kleckner said that without sanctions trade between Cuba and the United States could grow to $2 billion annually within five years.

The vigorous lobbying by business groups has put Miami-based hard-liners on the defensive.

Last week, the Cuban American National Foundation, which has long been the voice of Cuban American conservatives, denounced the Farm Bureau's suggestion that U.S. farmers could find in Cuba a solution to some of their financial woes as "cheap theatrics [that] amounts to nothing more than a cynical manipulation of farmers' emotions.''

In July, about 300 Cuban Americans rallied in Washington in support of ending the embargo.

"It's the end of an era,'' said Elena Freyre, executive director of the Cuban Committee for Democracy, a Miami group that favors lifting the embargo. "We not only want to open Cuba but open up Miami also. I understand the frustrations of my parents' generation. But there is a changing of the guard. People under 50 don't feel the same way.''