Plowing Under the Cuba Embargo

A Spokane politician wants to make Castro pay -- literally

George Nethercutt made history in 1994. A relatively unknown attorney from Spokane, Washington, he defeated a sitting Speaker of the House for his seat in Congress. Nethercutt's victory over Democrat Tom Foley was stunning. The notion of an electorate choosing a political neophyte over the person second in line to the presidency (and more to the point, a person so powerful he could bring home not just the bacon but the whole damn pig) was unfathomable. The last time it occurred was in 1860.Nethercutt, however, was in the right place at the right time.

Washington State's fifth congressional district is largely rural, politically conservative, and in 1994 was restless for a change following the first two years of Bill Clinton's presidency. That same discontent was being felt throughout the nation, leading to the Republican takeover of Congress and the rise of Newt Gingrich and his Contract with America. Nethercutt happily rode the wave all the way to Capitol Hill.

This week the Republican lawmaker may again make history, and once again he'll owe much of it to a combination of hard work and serendipitous timing.

For the first time in 37 years, a major component of this country's embargo against Cuba is about to be repealed. Nethercutt, through an amendment on the agriculture appropriations bill, is fighting to allow the sale of food and medicine to Cuba, as well as four other so-called rogue nations: Iran, Libya, the Sudan, and North Korea.

Nethercutt has offered similar amendments for each of the past three years, and each time the measures were blocked by members of the House leadership, most notably Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American Republican from Miami, and Tom DeLay, the majority whip from Texas. This year, however, Nethercutt appears to have such overwhelming support that even Diaz-Balart and DeLay recognize they may not be able to stop him

Last week Nethercutt and his supporters met privately with Diaz-Balart, DeLay, and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert to iron out a compromise. In the past even holding such discussions was unthinkable to the hard-line supporters of the Cuba embargo. “I have great respect for Lincoln and great respect for Ileana [Ros-Lehtinen] and great respect for the people of Florida who feel strongly on this issue,” Nethercutt says. “We have a difference of philosophy. I don't think food and medicine should be used as weapons in foreign policy.” He succinctly outlined his position in a recent issue of the Washington State Farm Bureau newsletter: “In the name of everything it means to be American, how can we oppose the notion of providing food and medicine to the children of the world? Public sentiment, and the will of the House, I believe, has come around to the idea of trying something new.”

This year Nethercutt spent months building a broad coalition for his amendment. He has brought together an unlikely group of supporters -- conservative members of Congress from Midwestern farm states eager to find new markets for American crops, as well as more liberal representatives from urban centers who oppose the embargo on humanitarian grounds. Nethercutt also acknowledges that his work was made easier this year by the Elian Gonzalez fiasco. He argues that Elian “has changed the face of Cuba” to the American people “from that of a screaming zealot in fatigues to that of a smiling six-year-old boy.”

In addition the congressman believes the handling of the Elian crisis by segments of the Cuban-American community caused people to reconsider U.S. relations with Cuba. “I think the rest of the nation felt that Florida should not necessarily dictate the foreign policy of the rest of the nation as it exists with Cuba,” Nethercutt told me last week. “Do we really want one segment of the country deciding for all segments of the country?”

And Nethercutt is right. Cuban Americans tend to think U.S.-Cuba relations are their private province, something that only affects them. In fact the embargo has had a profound effect on people throughout the United States, most notably farmers. “This embargo hasn't changed Fidel Castro's hold on his people,” Nethercutt says. “What unilateral embargoes do is punish American interests.”

Just ask Cary Janson, whose family has been farming in eastern Washington State for nearly 100 years. Janson farms about 2000 acres of peas, lentils, and wheat, and claims prices for those crops are at historic lows. “Things are pretty tough. A lot of farmers are going broke,” he says. “We're growing our crops at below the cost of production.”

The federal government stepped in with more than $15 billion worth of subsidies for farmers throughout the nation last year. “I'm trying to stay in business up here and keep a roof over my head,” he says. “We need to open new markets.”

Nethercutt estimates that Cuba could represent a billion-dollar-a-year market for the United States. Some doubt, however, that Cuba will be able to raise the money necessary to buy American goods. Janson praises Nethercutt's efforts, nonetheless. “I'm a fourth-generation farmer,” he notes. “It's in my blood to feed people. That's what I do. It kills me when we use food as a weapon.”

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