House panel rekindles debate over ending Cuba embargo

WASHINGTON - A House panel voted Thursday to lift sanctions on sales of food and medicine to Cuba, rekindling a thorny political issue for Republicans in Florida.

Legislation added to an agricultural spending bill would license such sales so long as they are not subsidized by the U.S. government.

The measure also would prohibit the president from including food and medicine in future embargoes of other countries without congressional approval. The measure was approved on a voice vote by a subcommittee of the GOP-controlled House Appropriations Committee.

The Senate overwhelmingly approved a similar Cuba measure last year, but it was later killed after Cuban Americans prevailed on House Republican leaders.

''This is critically important to our farmers. We ought to have this debate,'' said Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash.

Farm groups and agribusinesses have been pushing to ease the Cuban embargo in hopes of moving a glut of wheat and other commodities.

Cuban Americans are an important voting bloc in Florida, which is considered a critical state for GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush to win this fall.

A leading defender of the embargo, GOP Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida, circulated a letter to House colleagues Thursday asserting that President Fidel Castro ''is oppressing the Cuban people more than ever.''

Diaz-Balart said in an interview that he is counting on the GOP leadership to maintain its support for the embargo.

This year the legislation's chances could be complicated by the furor in Florida over Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old boy that the Clinton administration is seeking to return to his father in Cuba over the objections of his Florida relatives. Republicans have been harshly critical of the administration's handling of the case.

The administration last year lifted sanctions on exports of food and medicine to three other countries listed as terrorist states - Iran, Libya and Sudan - but was barred by federal law from including Cuba.

Supporters of the Cuban embargo say Cuba can't afford to buy U.S. food unless it's subsidized by the Agriculture Department, but farm groups insist that Cuba may save enough in shipping costs by buying American food to make up for the lack of federal aid.

Cuba currently buys about 700,000 metric tons of wheat a year, mostly from Europe and Canada.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said it was unfair to block sales of food to Cuba when Congress is considering permanent normal trade relations with China, which also has been criticized for its human rights record.

''You cannot be for one and not the other,'' she said.


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