Rep. George Nethercutt seems to have overwhelming support
Rep. George Nethercutt seems to have overwhelming support
AP/Wide World Photo

Plowing Under the Cuba Embargo

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For the first time in 37 years, a major component of this country's embargo against Cuba is about to be repealed.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.”

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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