U.S. Congress leaders divide on food sales to Cuba
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senators will stick to a proposal to relax long-standing U.S. economic sanctions on Cuba despite strong opposition from Republican leaders in the House , a top-ranking senator said on Monday.
Sanctions were imposed four decades ago after Cuba accepted Soviet aid. U.S. farm and business groups, who call the embargo a Cold War relic, want to open wide the door to food and medicine sales. Sales are heavily restricted now.
While the Senate voted last summer to exempt food and medicine from unilateral U.S. embargoes, House Republican leaders insist on more rigorous terms. They would bar any government or private U.S. financing of sales -- The Senate would allow private U.S. financing -- and write into law the current set of travel restrictions.
Preliminary discussions have done little to resolve the dispute, which is part of a $75 billion agriculture funding bill. A politically sensitive debate over allowing importation of prescription drugs also must be settled.
"There are two very different and strongly held opinions represented (on Cuba sanctions) and my obligation is to defend the Senate position and discuss it," said Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran, chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture and lead Senate negotiator on the bill.
"We will argue for consideration of it (the Senate language) by the House...We'll vote and see where people are and try to work it out."
Two staff workers in the House said there was no decision on Cuba sanctions. The issue was in the hands of Republican leaders. The House has yet to appoint its negotiators on the agriculture funding bill, a necessary step to write a final, compromise version of the bill.
Some proponents, such as North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan, a Democrat, fear the Cuba language will be killed by inaction or discarded at the last moment in an end-of-the-session rush to pass bills.
Defenders of U.S. sanctions describe Cuban President Fidel Castro, leader of the 1959 revolution, as an authoritarian who must embrace democracy before being rewarded economically.
Cuba imports about $750 million a year in food for its 11 million citizens and about $250 million a year in food for the tourist industry and government-operated businesses.
U.S. farm groups see Cuba, 90 miles from Florida in the Caribbean, as a natural outlet for U.S. exports.
Analysts disagree if Cuba has the cash to buy U.S. food outright or if, as a matter of policy it would allow a very large volume of sales to U.S. businesses when other suppliers have stood by it for years.
Besides the divisive debate over the best approach to Cuba -- economic engagement or arms-length embargoes -- lawmakers may be wary of the issue because of its political overtones. Cuban-Americans are a potent political force in Florida.
"All I keep hearing is both parties are trying to avoid this" rather than stir up Florida politics in an election year, said a trade group official who asked not to be named.
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