Plowing Under the Cuba Embargo

A Spokane politician wants to make Castro pay -- literally

Janson's comments are echoed by farmers throughout Nethercutt's district, which is about eight times the size of Miami-Dade County. Janson also notes that Nethercutt is in a tough battle for re-election. In 1994, as part of the Contract with America, he pledged to only run for three terms. He is now running for a fourth term, angering many of his earlier supporters. “There is no doubt that he needs this to pass to help him get re-elected,” Janson says.

Nethercutt's Democratic opponent may receive an expected ally. Miami's Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) is running TV commercials in Spokane decrying the Castro regime and those would try to weaken the embargo. The commercial shows a series of stark images along with pictures of Fidel Castro while a narrator talks about Cuba's human-rights abuses -- forced child labor, increased prostitution, the lack of free speech. It ends with this line: “The embargo is right, because the abuses are wrong.”

The commercial doesn't mention Nethercutt by name, but it is the first in what is expected to be a series of attacks by CANF. “They've threatened that they will be active against me,” Nethercutt says. The level of CANF frustration with him was evident in a statement José Cardenas, director of the foundation's Washington, D.C., office, made last week to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “Are [GOP leaders] going to allow a back-bencher to decide what legislation reaches the floor and what doesn't?” Cardenas asked incredulously. “I'm not saying George Nethercutt has to be crushed like a bug, but [House Majority Leader Dick] Armey and Mr. DeLay have to maintain party discipline.”

To CANF's chagrin, however, Nethercutt has persevered, and he insists it would be a mistake to equate his measure with an endorsement of Castro. “I have contempt for Fidel Castro,” Nethercutt declares. “I'd like to see him fall.” But common sense suggests that if the embargo hasn't worked in nearly 40 years, there is no reason to believe it will ever succeed, Nethercutt argues. So it just makes sense to try something new. Increased contacts between the United States and Cuba may very well have the effect of exporting democratic ideals.

It also seems hypocritical, he says, for the United States to open trade with China but to refuse to sell food and medicine to Cuba. “We are dealing with totalitarian states here, China and Cuba,” he notes. “We're dealing with oppression of people in both countries. And yet on the one hand we want a big wide-open trade relationship with one country, but on the other we won't even go so far as to sell Cuba food and medicine.”

In his meetings with Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen, Nethercutt has agreed to certain concessions. The sanctions wouldn't be lifted for 180 days and the United States would not be able to extend credit to the Cuban government to help them buy American goods. “The goal,” Nethercutt says, “is to not have the taxpayers be at risk.”

Nethercutt also agreed not to extend to Cuba the right to sell its products -- cigars and rum, for example -- in the United States. “Some Americans are frosted with me about that,” he laughs. Although he has been invited on several occasions to visit the island nation, he has yet to make a trip, but he's considering a future visit to “see for myself what conditions are like.”

Florida Sen. Connie Mack has called Nethercutt's amendment “an attempt to pull down the whole embargo,” and has vowed to fight it in the Senate. But the measure has strong support there as well, with Republican Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri leading the way.

Nethercutt told me that he is not challenging the rest of the embargo -- not yet anyway. “I think we need to keep it at this point,” he says. A lot will depend on how Castro responds to his measure. “This may be a test case to see what types of reforms are possible,” he adds. “This is a major policy change for our country.”

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