Lugar Urges Obama to Open Talks With Cuba, Ease Restrictions

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 2, 2009

With momentum building in Congress for a change in U.S. policy toward Cuba, Sen. Richard G. Lugar called on President Obama to appoint a special envoy to initiate direct talks with the island's communist government and to end U.S. opposition to Cuba's membership in the Organization of American States.

The nearly 50-year-old economic embargo against Cuba, Lugar (R-Ind.) said in a March 30 letter to Obama, puts the United States at odds with the views of the rest of Latin America, the European Union and the United Nations, and "undermines our broader security and political interests in the Western Hemisphere."

The April 17-19 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago would present a "unique opportunity for you to build a more hospitable climate to advance U.S. interests in the region through a change in our posture regarding Cuba policy," Lugar wrote.

Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is in the forefront of a broad movement advocating a new policy that includes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, a number of state governments and human rights groups. A bipartisan majority of Congress has repeatedly voted to ease restrictions on travel and other contact with Cuba, although the measures died after threatened presidential vetoes during the Bush administration.

Obama said during the presidential campaign that he would adopt a new strategy toward Cuba, including removing some travel restrictions, but he has said that the embargo should not be lifted until the Cuban government improves its human rights record and holds free elections. The United States severed diplomatic relations with Cuba after the communist takeover in 1960 and imposed limited economic sanctions that were broadened in 1962 to cover all trade. Travel there by U.S. citizens has been prohibited in varying degrees since 1963.

Lugar is a co-sponsor of a bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate this week that would end all restrictions on travel to Cuba except in cases of war or direct threats to health or safety. Cuban Americans with relatives living on the island are currently allowed to visit once a year. A similar bill in the House has more than 120 bipartisan co-sponsors.

Lifting all restrictions -- and the trade embargo -- requires legislation, but Obama can end the travel limits for Cuban Americans by executive order. Neither the legislation nor Lugar, in his letter to Obama, proposes lifting all sanctions outright or immediately resuming diplomatic relations. Lugar said the appointment of an envoy and initiation of direct talks on subjects such as migration and drug interdiction would "serve vital U.S. security interests . . . and could ultimately create the conditions for meaningful discussion of more contentious subjects."

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