Global Policy Forum

U.S. To Ease Curbs on Relief to Cuba


Acting on Pope's Urging

Economic Embargo to Stay - Direct Flights to Carry Aid Will Now Be Allowed

By Stephen Erlanger

WASHINGTON, March 19 - At the urging Of Pope John Paul 11, President Clinton will ease American restrictions on aid to Cuba, direct flights to the country and money to relatives by Cuban-Americans, senior American Officials said today.

The President is expected to announce the changes on Friday, said the officials, who stressed that he would keep the economic embargo on Cuba.

The officials said Mr. Clinton wanted to respond to a plea from the Pope for help in carrying out religious and relief activities that do not benefit the Communist Government of Fidel Castro. Restrictions on tourism will not be relaxed-

The moves do not convey any approval of Mr. Castro's Government or policies, a senior official said, but are based on the conclusion that the pope's visit to Cuba in January "created space for people to act in opposition to Castro."

For the first time since 1994, Mr. Clinton will allow Cuban-Americans to send money directly, and legally, to relatives in Cuba through license agencies. Cuban-Americans will be able to send up to $300 every quarter to each household.

Mr. Clinton will also allow certain organizations, like the Roman Catholic Church and the Catholic agency Caritas, to charter flights directly to Cuba from the United States. These flights might carry goods for relief purposes or passengers in emergencies, like funerals.

The President will also announce streamlining of the licensing procedure that allows nonprofit organiztions to export and sell pharmaceuticals to Cuba, while letting the organizations themselves insure that the drugs to go to the proper recipients, and not the state.

And Mr. Clinton will say he is willing to work with Congress on legislation to ease the export of needed food to Cuba.

Some Congressional criticism was immediate. Representatives Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, both Florida Republicans, issued a joint statement accusing Mr. Clinton of seeking "to unilaterally relax sanctions on the Castro tyranny." They said the Pope's visit "should not be used as a pretext to soften sanctions."

Ms. Ros-Lehtinen said permitting flights and the payment of money to relatives reduced the price Mr. Castro is paying for shooting down two unarmed civilian aircraft, flown by Cuban exiles testing the Cuban Government, in international waters on Feb. 24, 1996. But others in Miami cheered the decision and said it was another sign of needed change. "It was overdue," said Armando Garcia, vice president of Marazul Charters, the biggest Miami retailer of flights to Cuba. "Miami's not the same as it was two or three years ago. People are losing their fear of speaking up."

Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a research group based here, said he thought the Administration's decision would find general approval.

"There will be some gnashing of teeth in Congress, but with the Pope sanctioning such assistance and excoriating those who don't help, it seems to me the Administration will emerge relatively unscathed by its actions," Mr. Birns said. "It will also win points with the European Union and the rest of Latin America, which has been caustic in its criticism of U.S. policy to Cuba."

At Mr. Clinton's request, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and Samuel R. Berger, the national security adviser, developed the recommendations. Ms. Albright went to Miami in late February to talk to, church leaders and Cuban-Americans, including the families of the pilots killed in 1996.

On March 7, in a conversation with the Pope at the Vatican, Ms. Albright discussed Cuba and the importance of the Pope's 1979 visit to Poland to ending Communist rule there. His visit to Cuba could be a similar "point of departure," she told him.

After the meeting, Ms. Albright wrote Mr. Clinton a memo. In it she drew an analogy to what happened in Poland after the Pope's visit and said Cuban-Americans had given her the impression that the Pope's visit to Cuba had provided encouragement to opponents of the Government. She said the Catholic Church - with its four million adherents, its uncensored sermons and its access to the people - represented an important opening for Washington.

But what Mr. Clinton will do, officials say, is mostly revert to practices that existed when he took office. In August 1994, he responded to an organized outflow of Cuban boat people by banning Cuban-Americans from sending money to relatives.

Even so, Mr. Birns said, some $700 million a year in illegal payments get through to Cuba.

Mr. Clinton suspended direct flights to Cuba on Feb. 26, 1996, two days after the downing of the planes. Both the economic embargo and the ban on direct flights were included in the Helms-Burton bill, which Mr. Clinton signed in March,1996.

One Congressional staffer said today that it was not clear whether Mr. Clinton had the authority himself to allow direct flights, since the ban is covered under the legislation, which does allow special waivers. But officials said that while the details were still, being worked out, the intention is to cut the costs to the church and charities of flights they were sending anyway, through third countries.

After the Pope's visit, Senator Jesse Helms, the Republican from North Carolina who heads the Foreign Relations Committee, announced that he would introduce legislation designed to increase aid to Cuba and allow direct flights to deliver it. Today, his spokesman said he had been offended by Mr. Clinton's unilateral actions.

"This is a major mistake," said Mr. Helms's spokesman, Marc Thiessen. "It seriously complicates our ability to get through legislation to provide increased humanitarian assistance to the Cuban people."

The move to ease the Cuban sanctions had been gathering strength, even before the Pope's visit. The end of the Soviet Union made the idea of a Cuban threat to America seem implausible, and the recent death of Jorge Mas Canosa, whom Mr. Birns called "the most forceful and politically influential Cuban-American figure, with the key to back door of White House," took some political sting from the Cuban-American lobby.

John Howard, director of international policy for the United States Chamber of Commerce, said an endto the embargo would bring quicker benefits of freedom, the same argument the Europeans make.

In January, the chamber joined groups like the National Association of Manufacturers in advocating an immediate lifting of restrictions on the sale of food, medicine and medical equipment. "But that's only a first step," Mr. Howard said. "When you end these embargoes, free markets and free societies follow."


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.