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Measures to relax Cuba sanctions fall by the wayside.

Lawmakers hoping to ease restrictions on travel and trade to Cuba failed to capitalize on one of the most favorable political climates to do so in years.

Devastating hurricanes that hit Cuba this past month increased the American public's empathy for changes to Bush administration restrictions on Cuban-American travel--as well as cash remittances--to the island.

In the waning days of his presidency, President Bush's threat to veto any bill to relax sanctions has lost some of its teeth. Certain aspects of the embargo itself have steadily lost support among politically powerful exiles.

But none of the dozens of bills to ease sanctions that were introduced in the 110th Congress were approved; most remained bottled up in committee.

Francisco "Pepe" Hernandez, president of the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation--which for decades championed the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba--took the unprecedented step of testifying before Congress on Sept. 18 for the urgent need to temporarily lift restrictions.

He said he was "no Castro sympathizer" and was dismayed at having to defend in Congress the right of Cuban-American families "to comfort, support and protect each other."

The CANF's original license from the Treasury Department allowed the group to send up to $250,000 in aid to specific hurricane victims. But the foundation reached that limit within two days, and the expanded license prohibits donors from specifying recipients.

"You can give us a blanket donation, but you can't specify who the recipient on the island will be," CANF spokeswoman Sandy Acosta Cox told CubaNews from Miami.

At stake was a measure sponsored by Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-MA) that would let Cuban-Americans travel back home as often as they wanted. Bush had limited those visits to once every three years, and allowed them only to immediate family members.

Delahunt's bill would have also eliminated Bush's restrictions on Cuban-American remittances to family members in Cuba. Delahunt called the restrictions "morally repugnant."

"This policy has reduced American influence on the island to almost nothing, even as changes are occurring," Delahunt said at the opening of a hearing on the bill before a panel of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

EXILE GROUPS SPAR OVER RESTRICTIONS

By telephone from Mexico City, Cuban dissident Hector Palacios also urged a lifting of restrictions on Cuban-American travel.

"Such actions strengthens civil society and weakens dictatorships. For Cuban-Americans to see their relatives would be inspiring," said Palacios. "We should not give Raul Castro an opportunity to turn this into a political advantage. This is the time when change can begin in Cuba."

But Ninoska Perez, director of the Cuban Liberty Council, had urged the Bush administration to impose the travel and remittance restrictions and cautioned lawmakers against "becoming accomplices to a dictatorship."

She also said some of the Cuban-Americans who were seeking to visit relatives--any are fairly new arrivals to the United States--had broken U.S. immigration law.

"Unfortunately, some of those who now claim they want to see their relatives as often as possible are the same who misled our government in arriving to our shores, brought in by smuggling rings on speedboats," she said.

The hearing was possible because Rep. Tom Lantos, former chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and a staunch embargo supporter, had died and been replaced by fellow California Democrat Howard Berman, a supporter of easing sanctions.

But Delahunt's bill fizzled to an end two weeks later when Congress adjourned.

Any momentum for change at the end of the session was trumped by the urgent need to consider a last-minute $700 billion bailout of Wall Street.

Negotiations over the bailout bill consumed Sen. Chris Dodd (D-MA), who intended to amend a defense bill with a measure to lift remittances, travel and restrictions on food sales for six months to help Cuba recover from hurricanes Gustav and Ike.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), a leading member of the House Cuba Working Group who has sponsored legislation for years to eliminate travel restrictions, told CubaNews that the U.S. financial crisis robbed those who wanted to ease sanctions of any opportunity.

"We just didn't have a chance," he lamented.

Flake also said the failure of Congress to approve any spending bills also deprived like-minded lawmakers of a favored strategy--attaching Cuba-related amendments to one of those bills, usually ones that fund Treasury.

"Also, the Cuban government didn't help matters with their defiant attitude with the offered aid," Flake added.

Havana rejected a U.S. offer of $100,000 to private aid groups in Cuba and a second offer of $6.3 million that had no strings attached.
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Author:Radelat, Ana
Publication:CubaNews
Geographic Code:5CUBA
Date:Oct 1, 2008
Words:759
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