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As relations worsen, Cuba vows to keep buying U.S. food--unless Bush says no.

Despite the sudden deterioration in bilateral relations, both Cuban officials and U.S. analysts predict that Havana will continue purchasing U.S. farm commodities.

In a blistering speech Apr. 25, Cuban President Fidel Castro defended the arrest and jailing of 75 dissidents--who received sentences as long as 28 years after one-day trials--and the swift execution of three Cubans who hijacked a ferry in a failed bid to reach Florida's shores.

"We are going to implement our laws," warned the 76-year-old revolutionary, citing a relatively new law that harshly punishes dissidents who receive U.S. assistance.

Castro blamed James Cason, chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, for inciting subversion and provoking a recent rash of hijackings.

A few days earlier, Cason's counterpart in Washington, Dagoberto Rodriguez, accused the Bush administration of funneling money to dissidents and slowing the pace of legal Cuban immigration to the United States. Rodriguez said only 700 applications have been processed in the last six months, which he called a violation of a bilateral accord that requires the United States to issue 20,000 immigrant visas per year.

"These events have their origins in the increasing hostility of the U.S. administration towards our country," Rodriguez wrote in a letter to the Senate Working Group on Cuba. "The U.S. has no right to use its diplomatic missions abroad to interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries. Cuba does not accept that. Neither would any other country that respects itself."

Meanwhile, White House officials are considering new ways to punish Cuba, including the shutdown of direct charter flights from Miami to Havana, and the elimination of family remittances by Cuban-Americans that inject up to $1 billion annually into the Cuban economy.

Yet even as bilateral relations reach their lowest point since Cuba's air force shot down two Brothers to the Rescue planes in 1996, analysts say farm trade between the two nations will continue as before--especially if Castro heeds international pleas to free the dissidents or at least reduce their sentences.

"It's sort of like the stock market. There are times when things are tense and times when things are easy," said Washington consultant Kirby Jones, president of Alamar Associates. "The reality of the world is that business goes on, despite diplomatic differences.

In fact, Jones told CubaNews he was preparing to take the CEOs of 11 American companies to Havana at the end of April.


While a few trade delegations and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack have canceled plans to travel to Cuba--citing the clampdown on dissent--a group of Iowa businesses led by the Greater Des Moines Partnership says it's going ahead with a trip to the island in May.

In addition, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin--the senior Democrat on the Senate Agricultural Committee--visited Cuba at the peak of tensions in late April and met with Castro and several dissidents, including Elizardo Sanchez and Vladimiro Roca. He also spoke with Gisela Delgado, the wife of Hector Palacios, who received a 25-year jail sentence.

Harkin is promoting a three-point plan under which Cuba would free its prisoners of conscience, the U.S. would make clear it has no plans to invade the island, and the White House would consult with allies to "chart a new course" that doesn't escalate tensions.

Wayne Smith of the Center for International Studies, which sponsored Harkin's trip, said Cuba's worsening economy is partly to blame for the crackdown on dissent, along with "provocations" by U.S. diplomats in Havana. He said Bush's determination to act unilaterally in Iraq also played a major role.

"The dissident arrests began virtually the day the war started," Smith said. "I think the Cubans, looking at Bush's policy of pre-emptive strikes against any so-called rogue state that might pose a potential threat, decided that the U.S. might in fact be planning military action against Cuba, so it was time to batten down the hatches."

Yet one European diplomat interviewed in Havana told CubaNews that Castro has bigger economic headaches to worry about than the fallout from anger over its crackdown.

"I think Cuba is endangering foreign investment much more by its complicated regulatory and bureaucratic obstacles, and by the lack of security," said the diplomat, who asked not to be named. "The worse the economic situation gets, the less sure investors will feel about doing business here. Cuba's capacity to pay is always the big question. If the economy keeps going down, insecurity will increase and that will hurt further investment. In that overall scenario, the human rights situation is a piece, but it's not the biggest piece."

In fact, Rodriguez of the Cuban Interests Section said his country is willing to keep buying U.S. farm products for cash--which is specifically allowed under the Trade Sanctions and Reform Act of 2000--unless the White House halts such sales. To date, he said, Cuba has signed about $300 million in food contracts with U.S. firms.

Rodriguez also said Cuba has no plans to close the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, a move threatened just a few weeks earlier.

Myles Frechette, president of the Council of the Americas, told CubaNews it's a historical certainty that whenever Fidel Castro feels threatened, he engages in repression--even at the cost of alienating his friends.

"I have always believed that Castro doesn't want the embargo to be lifted. It's a way of strengthening himself," said Frechette, who once ran the State Department's Cuba desk. "But one thing is for sure. Nobody is going to talk very loudly for Cuba. Who will get up on the floor of the House and push trade [with Cuba] now, even if it's good for his state?"

Indeed, Castro's actions were decried on Capitol Hill on Apr. 8, when the House passed a non-binding resolution 414-0--with 11 lawmakers and nine not voting--that roundly condemned the crackdown.

While the State Department warned Havana to "be careful with its rhetoric," it also admitted that it wasn't satisfied with the slow processing of Cuban immigrant visas. It blamed "more stringent interagency security checks" in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks for the slowdown and said "we are working to issue documents more quickly."

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), GOP leader of the 50-member House Cuba Working Group, argues that Castro's crackdown proves he really doesn't want the U.S. embargo to end.

"It's evidence that we have to push harder to lift the travel ban," Flake said.

In fact, some of the ideas being proposed by the Bush administration, like abolishing family remittances, are strongly opposed by the Cuban American National Foundation.

"Castro is responding to the growth of the dissident movement, which to a large measure is supported by well-wishers from the U.S. and overseas," said Dennis Hays, executive vice-president of the CANF.

"It would be counterproductive to tell the Cuban people--who have sacrificed everything--hat we're not going to send money to their families. We need to be going the other direction. We should be flooding Cuba with resources that make a difference."
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Author:Radelat, Ana
Date:May 1, 2003
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