House panel mulls bill to ease Cuban embargo

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Business and human rights groups urged Congress on Thursday to ease the decades-old embargo on Cuba by passing a bipartisan bill to lift a ban on travel to the communist country and remove certain obstacles to legal farm sales.

"We believe the proposed legislation represents a necessary step toward ending a U.S. policy that has failed for decades to have any impact on improving human rights in Cuba," Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, said at a congressional hearing.

President Barack Obama's election in November 2008 stirred hopes throughout the Hemisphere that the United States would move to end the embargo codified by Congress in 1963 and strengthened twice in the 1990s.

The embargo is seen in the rest of the region as a outdated holdover from the Cold War, when Cuba was a close ally of the now defunct Soviet Union. In February, leaders of all 32 nations of Latin America meeting at a summit in Cancun again called on the United States to lift the embargo.

Obama has taken some steps to improve relations with Havana, such as allowing unlimited family travel and remittances and greater telecommunication links. But the Cuban government has failed to reciprocate, making it politically difficult for the White House to move further.

Representative John Tanner, chairman of a trade subcommittee in the House of Representatives Ways and Means, called the hearing on Thursday to examine a bill crafted by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Colin Peterson, a Democrat, and Republican Representative Jerry Moran.


That legislation would lift restrictions on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba and remove certain obstacles to cash agricultural sales already allowed under previous reforms.

"Lifting these travel and trade restrictions is about what is best for the United States," Tanner said in a statement, adding it would create U.S. jobs through additional farm sales and help the Cuban people through increased tourism.

Myron Brilliant, senior vice president for international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argued maintaining the embargo allows Cuban authorities to blame the United States for the island's poverty when the real culprit "is a half century of Marxist mismanagement."

A March study by Texas A&M University estimated that approving the Peterson-Moran bill to lift the travel ban and ease agricultural export restrictions could lead to $365 million in additional sales of U.S. goods and create 6,000 jobs in the United States, Brilliant said.

Representative Kevin Brady, the top Republican on the House trade subcommittee, said he supported normal financing for food and medicine sales but opposed further moves until a democratic government is in place in Havana and billions of dollars in expropriation claims are resolved.

Brady and other Republicans criticized Democrats for holding a hearing on expanding trade with Cuba while refusing to take up a long-delayed free-trade agreement with Colombia that was negotiated during the Republican administration of former President George W. Bush.

Brady said many Democrats object to the Colombian agreement because of Colombia's record on labor rights.

"Let's look at the facts on the ground in both countries. The International Labor Organization has reported on Cuba's labor policies, and its not pretty," Brady said.

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