Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Lugar Calls for Substantial Change

US embargo on Cuba "has failed": top Republican senator

WASHINGTON (AFP) — The US economic embargo on Cuba "has failed," top Republican lawmaker Richard Lugar has said in a report likely to fuel momentum for a shift in US' decades-old policy toward the island.

"After 47 years ... the unilateral embargo on Cuba has failed to achieve its stated purpose of 'bringing democracy to the Cuban people,' said the senator from Indiana -- a senior member or the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "it may have been used as a foil by the regime to demand further sacrifices from Cuba's impoverished population."

The report, entitled "Changing Cuba Policy - In the United States National Interest," is due for release on Monday.

It is likely to frame the debate on overhauling US policy after almost five decades of policy seeking to isolate Americas' only communist country.

The report also comes one year after former leader Fidel Castro stepped aside after decades as the island's president, although he remains from all appearances an important behind-the-scenes player in the island's politics.

US President Barack Obama has pledged dialogue with all foreign leaders including the US' traditional foes, in sharp contrast to successive US administrations which have sought to isolate Havana.

But so far he has offered few details on how far he might be willing to go in reaching out to Cuba.

According to Lugar, while "current US policy has many passionate defenders, and their criticism of the Castro regime is justified ... nonetheless, we must recognize the ineffectiveness of our current policy and deal with the Cuban regime in a way that enhances US interests."

The United States and Cuba do not have full diplomatic relations and Washington has had a full economic embargo on Havana since 1962.

But that embargo was tweaked slightly by former US president George W. Bush, who allowed Cuba to purchase US food, as long as it was purchased in cash.

Since then US food sales to Cuba have surged, but US farm producers would sell vastly more if Cuba could get credit for its purchases.

The US Senate report due out Monday stops short of recommending an end to the US embargo.

But Lugar supports lifting Bush administration restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba, reinstituting formal bilateral cooperation on drug interdiction and migration, and allowing Cuba to buy US agricultural products on credit.

Separately the Senate foreign relations report, an advance copy of which was obtained by AFP, urged that US migration policy toward Cubans should be reviewed by the White House.

Under current "wet foot, dry foot" policy, Cubans picked up by US Coast Guard vessels at sea are returned to their country while any Cuban who makes it to US soil, even illegally, gets to stay, work and obtain residency.

It is a policy the United States does not have for nationals of any other country; Cuba complains that it fuels dangerous illegal emigration by sea.

"The review (of wet foot, dry foot) should assess whether this policy has led to the inefficient use of US Coast Guard resources and assets, as well as the potential to redirect these resources to drug interdiction efforts," the report says.

During his campaign for the presidency, Obama said the Cuba embargo had not helped bring democracy to the island, led by Fidel's younger brother, 77-year old President Raul Castro.

But so far Obama has said only that he would end some sanctions on Cuban-Americans traveling to the island, and eliminate limits on their remittances to relatives in Cuba.

Lawmakers in the US House of Representatives earlier this month introduced a bill to permit US citizens unrestricted travel to Cuba.

The separate "Freedom To Travel to Cuba Act," which would overturn the 46-year-old US policy strictly limiting travel to the Caribbean island, will be subject to debate after being referred to the Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Full report here

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