The press conference was scheduled for a small room in the Rayburn Building, one of several office complexes occupied by members of Congress. Rep. Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat, called the gathering late last month to announce his intention of introducing a new bill that would end the embargo against Cuba. The size of the room didn't bother Rangel; he wasn't expecting many members of the press -- or members of the Congress, for that matter -- to attend.
Rangel's bill, which would lift all restrictions on trade and investments, as well as travel, telephone service, and mail communication with the island, is mostly symbolic. The congressman's staff freely admits the bill doesn't have a chance of passing, but the hearings, which will likely take place next February before the House Ways and Means Committee, will give those who want to end the embargo a chance to state their case.
While Rangel didn't expect many of his colleagues to join him for the press conference, one of the half-dozen lawmakers who did show up shocked everyone in the room. Rep. Bill Richardson, a Democrat from New Mexico who is a rising star in the House and a regular advisor to President Clinton, walked in shortly after the press conference began and publicly expressed his general support. Though he did not endorse Rangel's bill, he said, the time had come to take a new approach toward Cuba; the old days of strict isolationism must end.
Around the room, jaws dropped. Richardson, after all, had been a staunch supporter of the embargo, standing firm alongside the House's three Cuban-American representatives, South Florida Republicans Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez.
What changed Richardson's mind? A member of Congress for the past ten years, Richardson helped lead the fight to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement, which the House had narrowly voted to support the previous day. He had been "betrayed" by Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart, Richardson told Rangel's audience. At the very least, he explained, they should have informed him that they intended to vote against the agreement. Menendez, added Richardson, had the decency to let him know in advance that he opposed NAFTA.
What was even worse, Richardson went on, Ros-Lehtinen's and Diaz-Balart's opposition was based on their disdain for the Mexican government and its relations with Cuba. A Mexican American himself, Richardson was angered by the vehemence of their opposition to a bill that meant so much to him.
Sources close to Richardson say his comments were more than simply bitterness about NAFTA; along with Rangel's bill, they portend a shift in Congress's attitude toward Cuba -- and to some extent toward the Cuban-American representatives themselves.
For decades Congress has shown only fleeting interest in Cuba, generally deferring to the more conservative voices emanating from Miami. But with more and more experts suggesting Castro's demise may be imminent, lawmakers are feeling a restless need to re-examine existing policies, especially where business interests may be concerned. In a letter urging colleagues to support his bill Rangel wrote, "Unfortunately, U.S. business is stymied by Cold War politics while our competitors around the world are forging joint ventures in Cuba, laying the groundwork in what many experts see as the beginning of Cuba's gradual, but inevitable, transformation to a free enterprise zone. American business is being left behind, not out of ignorance or lack of interest. They are barred from participating by an outdated policy, dictated by narrow political interests, that runs counter to every other effort to stimulate our economy."
One Congressional staffer says that by virtue of their unyielding reactionary stance, Cuban-American lawmakers risk alienation. "The Cuban-Americans are all junior members. And what's worse, they are all one-issue members. Cuba. That's it," says the staffer. "They have not improved their credibility or their stature in the House with the manner in which they promote their position, the stridency of their support. That type of stridency just doesn't play well in Congress."
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Richardson himself is slightly more diplomatic. "I just feel my Cuban-American friends need to look at issues beyond the very narrow prism of Fidel Castro," he says.
Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen are working to smooth things over with Richardson, but they reject the notion they are one-issue representatives. And they say their opposition to NAFTA was not based solely on their concerns for Mexican-American relations. "People can think whatever they want," Diaz-Balart says. "I'm still new here, but I don't buy the theory that there are new ideas now floating around with how to deal with Cuba."
Richardson, though, is working on his own bill, a compromise that likely will fall somewhere between Rangel's and the current policy of strict isolationism. He is expected to propose the legislation in January.