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Lugar, GOP Senate Report Urge Fresh Look at Relations With Cuba

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By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 21, 2009

Restrictive U.S. policies toward Cuba are ineffective, have failed to achieve their stated purpose of promoting democracy and should be reevaluated to take advantage of recent political changes on the island, according to the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The views of Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) are appended to a report by minority committee staffers that calls for lifting Bush administration restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba, reinstituting formal bilateral cooperation on drug interdiction and migration, and allowing Cuba to buy U.S. agricultural products on credit. Scheduled for release Monday, the report stops short of proposing that the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba be lifted.

A bipartisan congressional majority has long favored easing at least some of the restrictions but was repeatedly thwarted by the Bush White House and the Republican leadership. President Obama pledged during the campaign to lift the travel and remittance restraints, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in written responses to Senate confirmation questions that the administration planned an overall "review" of Cuba policy.

An administration official said yesterday that it was "not unreasonable" to expect that Obama would ease constraints on family travel and remittances to Cuba before he attends the mid-April Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. Latin America and U.S. allies in Europe maintain both diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba.

But Cuba, and Latin America in general, has so far received little attention from the Obama administration amid the turmoil of the economic crisis at home and the Afghan war and other pressing issues abroad. No director for the region has been named within the National Security Council staff, and regional officials at the State Department have remained in place.

Although diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana have been severed and the U.S. trade embargo has remained in place since the early 1960s, additional restrictions on dealings with Cuba have ebbed and flowed since then. Diplomatic interest sections were established in both capitals under President Jimmy Carter, who also opened the door to visits by Cuban Americans to family members on the island.

The embargo was tightened significantly in the mid-1990s with legislation, passed by the Republican Congress but signed by President Bill Clinton, that extended sanctions to third countries trading with Cuba and penalizing foreign countries doing business there. At the same time, Clinton used his presidential authority to allow more extensive nongovernmental exchanges with Cuba and to expand allowable remittances and humanitarian aid by nongovernmental organizations and churches.

In 2003, however, the Bush administration severely restricted person-to-person exchanges and later imposed tight constraints on family travel and remittances. Family visits were restricted to one trip every three years, and then only to visit immediate family members for no more than 14 days. Cash remittances to family members were also sharply restricted. Semiannual meetings on migration issues were ended in 2004, although some Cuban government cooperation with the U.S. Coast Guard on drug interdiction in the Caribbean has continued.

Sales of agricultural goods to Cuba, on a cash-only basis, have been allowed since 2000. Last year, when a series of hurricanes caused extensive crop destruction, those sales rose by 61 percent over 2007 levels.

In his letter to senators, Lugar noted that Obama's election and the replacement of President Fidel Castro with his brother Raúl have generated debate important to U.S. security interests, "broader U.S.-Latin-American relations, and global perceptions of U.S. foreign policy."

"Despite uncertainty about Cuba's mid-term political future," Lugar wrote, "it is clear that the recent leadership changes have created an opportunity for the United States to reevaluate a complex relationship marked by misunderstanding, suspicion, and open hostility."


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