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U.S. House votes to modify Cuba trade embargo to allow food, medicine sales
Critics say embargo remains tough as ever
WASHINGTON -- The United States is a step closer to slightly easing its nearly 40-year-old trade embargo against Cuba by allowing food and medicine to be sold to the communist island.
But it's also strengthening the embargo in other areas -- provoking criticism from U.S. President Bill Clinton and others. Cuba has been under U.S. economic sanctions since it accepted Soviet aid in 1962.
Under provisions in a $78 billion agriculture-funding bill passed Wednesday by the U.S. House of Representative, sales of U.S. food and medicines to Cuba no longer would be prohibited.
The measure is expected to pass the Senate, and Clinton, despite his reservations, is expected to sign the bill.
Farm and business groups have pushed for the Cuba legislation, arguing that the trade embargo is a futile Cold War relic, and that democracy in Cuba would be better encouraged by closer economic ties with the U.S.
Fifteen major U.S. farm groups had signed a letter urging the House and Senate to pass the bill, which also provides $3.5 billion in emergency aid to U.S. farmers.
Clinton, however, had called the bill "a big mistake" that will do little for U.S. farmers -- while unwisely limiting travel to Cuba. It writes into law regulations barring tourist travel to the island -- unless Americans obtain a license or are invited by a non-U.S. group that pays the bills.
Currently, only an executive order -- one that easily could be reversed -- prevents U.S. tourists from traveling to Cuba.
Despite Clinton's reservations, the White House said he would sign the bill.
Other critics of the bill said it would do little to ease the embargo. Even though it permits food and medicine sales, it denies any public or private U.S. financing for those sales.
Cuba had criticized the proposal as a publicity stunt, due to the travel and financing restrictions.
Several analysts say U.S. sales probably would begin at a low volume, perhaps $50 million a year, because of the ban on U.S. export credits and direct bank financing. Cuba imports $750 million a year in food for its 11 million citizens.
William Hawkins, of the U.S. Business and Industry Council, recently said U.S. economic gains from easing the embargo "will be well-nigh imperceptible."
Rep. David Obey, D-Wisconsin, said that, because of the financing restrictions, "I wouldn't mind wagering there will be, at best, a tiny dribble of sales."
But Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Florida, a strong critic of Cuban President Fidel Castro, said trade was not Castro's goal.
"What they are seeking is credits, taxpayer credits to this regime in Cuba," Diaz-Balart said.
Diaz-Balart said the embargo should not be relaxed until Castro releases political prisoners and moves toward democratic elections.
Lawmakers from farm states have been more sanguine, even though the legislation was not as sweeping as they had initially sought. Washington state Republican George Nethercutt, the leading House advocate of the change, said he was confident there would be sales.
"It changes the idea that food and medicine should be weapons in foreign policy," Nethercutt said. "I hope the president will sign it."
Under the bill, Iran, Libya, North Korea and Sudan also will be able to buy food and medicine from the United States, but those countries will be allowed to arrange U.S. financing. "That is really where the bulk of sales would be anyway," said Missouri Republican Jo Ann Emerson.
CNN Capitol Hill Producer Ted Barrett and Reuters contributed to this report.
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