Cuban games in Congress

Trade: Illusory opening to Havana should help U.S. grain sales to other pariah states.

June 30, 2000

ECONOMIC sanctions such as trade and travel embargoes rarely have the intended effect. Unilateral sanctions are the worst.

Sanctions that work best are international in origin and pegged to reasonable demands that can be met in a brief time frame. They are best managed by the executive branch of government, which can adjust to changing circumstances. Laws passed by Congress last long after the circumstances that provoked them have changed.

These are the principles against which to judge the deal reached among House Republican conservatives to remove one roadblock to increased exports to Cuba. By the time the concerns of farm belt and Cuban-American members of Congress had been accommodated, the deal looked like this:

The agriculture budget bill will be junked-up with measures so that no member may be seen voting on Cuba alone. Food and medicine may be sold to Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea and Sudan. But no U.S. credit guarantees may be used for Cuban trade and Cuba may neither sell nor borrow here. Those contraband cigars that are so fashionable will remain contraband and fashionable.

The result would be few farm goods sold to Cuba, which now imports wheat from France and Canada and rice from China, all of which subsidize exports. Any U.S. sales would probably be by large agri-businesses that are able to find Cuba the lending sources it needs. The real benefit to U.S. farmers would be opening the markets of Iran and Libya, which can pay cash.

But, in addition, the executive ban on travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba would be hardened into law. The power to impose future unilateral sanctions would be usurped from the president by Congress.

All of this is chancy because the House and Senate must first pass their bills and then reconcile them. The Senate passed a more sensible bill last year that would have ended all unilateral bans on food and medicine sales, but the House would not go along.

Anything that expands trade and ends grandstanding is good. Anything that hamstrings administration foreign policy-making is bad. This plan would do both.

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