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Lawmakers propose Cuba-related bills, but few--if any--are expected to pass.

As promised, legislators from both sides of the aisle have introduced bills in the new Congress that, if passed, could radically change current U.S. policy toward Cuba. But few of those measures have any chance of approval.

Cuba-related legislation ranges from bold attempts to end all economic sanctions against Havana to more modest proposals that would increase Cuban-American travel to the island and ease restrictions on U.S. food sales to Cuba.

Fidel Castro's continued illness has fueled speculation that he will never return to power, and it has also helped boost support for a relaxation of U.S. sanctions against the island.

But most legislation that would increase travel to or trade with Cuba is expected to fall victim to President Bush's veto threat, a presidential campaign season that boosts the political clout of anti-Castro exile voters in Florida, and Cuban-American lawmakers skilled at derailing any attempt to weaken the embargo.

Measures aimed at relaxing U.S. travel restrictions are likely to have the best chance of approval. But, even so, legislation like the bill introduced Mar. 1 by Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) may be too ambitious.

Enzi's bill, co-sponsored by eight other GOP and Democratic senators, would lift the embargo's prohibition on spending money to travel to Cuba, which prevents most Americans from traveling legally to the island.

"Keeping the door closed and yelling at the Castro government on the other side does nothing to spread democracy and does nothing to help the people of Cuba," said Enzi.

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) has introduced a similar travel bill in the House.

Proposals to ease travel restrictions on a much smaller group of U.S. citizens--Cuban-Americans--are likely to have better chances of survival.

Even so, Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-MA) was only able to find 12 co-sponsors for his Cuban-American Family Rights Restoration Act, which would end the Bush administration's restrictions that permit Cuban-Americans to visit their family on the island only once every three years.

Staunchly opposing this bill and others like it is the US-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, a Florida-based PAC that has contributed nearly $900,000 to Democratic and Republican congressional candidates. The group has raised almost $1.5 million to ensure that the 45-year-old embargo is maintained, even with Raul Castro running Cuba.

"You [run] a marathon and we're in the last 50 yards of the marathon," the PAC's Washington director, Mauricio Claver-Carone, told the Miami Herald on Mar. 16. "You can't have leverage if you kind of trip and fall in looking at the finish line."

MORAN BILL COULD BOOST U.S. FOOD EXPORTS

Legislation that would end the White House's restrictions on food sales to Cuba--which were permitted for the first time under a 2000 law--also has a better chance of approval in this Congress, because it had strong support in the past.

In February, Rep. Jerry Moran (R-KS) introduced the Agricultural Export Facilitation Act, which would end the requirement that the Cuban government pay cash for food imports before the shipments leave U.S. docks.

"With the stepping aside of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, this is an opportune time to encourage the United States to change its trade policies toward Cuba," said Moran, speaking at a press conference announcing the introduction of the Agricultural Export Facilitation Act of 2007, which he's co-sponsoring along with Reps. Stephanie Herseth (D-SD), Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO) and Mike Ross (D-AR).

"The actions of our own government have created a climate of uncertainty and have inhibited the sale of agricultural goods," said Moran, who was chairman of the House Agriculture General Commodities Subcommittee until last month. "Our unreliable and uncertain trade policies are sending the signal to Cuba that it is easier to purchase its products elsewhere. We are only hurting ourselves."

BILL HAS BACKING OF MAJOR FARM GROUPS

The Kansas-based Western Farm Press reports that organizations like the American Farm Bureau Federation and the USA Rice Federation issued statements in support of the legislation, which both said could significantly increase the U.S. share of the Cuban market for several commodities.

"There are considerable restrictions placed on U.S. agricultural sales to Cuba which impede our marketing efforts and sales to that country," said AFBF President Bob Stallman. "This legislation would remove those costly barriers."

"The rice industry greatly appreciates the work of these representatives," said USA Rice board member Jackie Loewer, a rice producer from Branch, La. "We will fully support their efforts to move this legislation forward. We believe this year represents an opportunity to make some progress on addressing the unwarranted restrictions on agricultural sales to Cuba."

Rice analysts say U.S. producers could sell more than 600,000 metric tons of rice per year if the restrictions were not in place. Prior to the trade embargo imposed in 1962, Cuba was the No. 1 export market for U.S. rice.

"American farmers and ranchers are unnecessarily shut out from accessing the large and proximate Cuban marketplace," said Herseth. "In addition to the clear benefits that opening this market would hold for our domestic producers, millions of Cubans need access to a safe and abundant food supply."

STRONG OPPOSITION TO OFFSHORE OIL DRILLING

Another bill introduced in this Congress isn't focused on Cuba, but would allow U.S. oil and natural gas producers to partner with the Cuban government to drill in Cuban waters.

Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Larry Craig (R-ID) introduced a bill Mar. 14 that would that would open U.S. waters near Florida to oil and natural gas production.

Their Security and Fuel Efficiency Energy Act of 2007 would also allow U.S. producers to drill in fields off the northwest Cuban coast that are only 45 miles from Key West and could contain up to 9 billion barrels of oil.

In late 2006, Congress ended a 25-year ban on drilling in deep waters 125 miles south of the Florida Panhandle, although it set some restrictions until 2020.

The waters off Cuba's northern coastline have been open to international exploration since 1999, but U.S. companies may not invest in any projects due to the embargo. Those Cuban offshore fields are now being explored by joint ventures involving companies from Norway, India, Spain and elsewhere.

"This new access would level the playing field by allowing the United States to compete for resources that are currently available to Cuba and other countries," claims a summary of the Dorgan-Craig legislation.

But that bill has little chance of approval because it's opposed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and other key Democrats who don't want an expansion of offshore oil drilling.

Florida lawmakers also vowed to fight any attempt to move oil and natural gas production closer to their state's coastline. And the Bush administration warns that the legislation would be subject to a veto.

Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL) warns the bill would allow drilling rigs in an area designated for protection as a military training zone.

"This is bad policy. It attacks Florida's protections, it violates the embargo with Cuba and it would put drilling rigs in the Gulf military training area," said Martinez.

The Cuban-American lawmaker from Orlando introduced his own bill that would deny U.S. travel visas to any foreign person or company who supports Cuba's oil program. And it would impose unspecified penalties on anyone who invests more than $1 million to develop Cuban oil and gas resources.

CUBA-RELATED BILLS INTRODUCED IN THE 110th CONGRESS:

Jan. 4: Cuba Reconciliation Act, sponsored by Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY). Would lift the embargo altogether.

Jan. 4: Baseball Diplomacy Act, sponsored by Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY). Would waive certain immigration restrictions on Cuban athletes who want to play for U.S. baseball teams.

Jan. 22: Free Trade With Cuba Act, sponsored by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY). Would lift the embargo altogether.

Jan. 24: Export Freedom to Cuba Act, sponsored by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY). Would end all restrictions on American travel to Cuba.

Jan. 31: Cuban-American Family Rights Restoration Act, sponsored by Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-MA). Would end all restrictions on Cuban-American travel to Cuba.

Feb. 13: Agricultural Export Facilitation Act of 2007, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Moran (R-KS). Would ease restrictions on how the Cuban government pays for U.S. food imports.

Mar. 1: Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, sponsored by Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY). Would end all restrictions on American travel to Cuba.

Mar. 14: Security and Fuel Efficiency (SAFE) Act, sponsored by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND). Would allow U.S. oil and natural gas producers to partner with the Cuban government to drill in Cuban waters.

--ANA RADELAT
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Author:Radelat, Ana
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Date:Mar 1, 2007
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