Push to Lift Embargo on Cuba Gains Momentum in Some Circles

Study says US trade there could soon be worth up to $6.5 billion

IN the wake of expanding United States trade with Vietnam and China, some American businesspeople and conservatives are calling for lifting the embargo against Cuba.

William Ratliff, a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, says he used to support the embargo as a way to break the Soviet-Cuban alliance. But he says Cuba no longer poses ``that national security threat.''

Economist Milton Friedman adds: ``I see no justification for an embargo. There was far more justification for an embargo against Russia.''

He says he always opposed the Cuban embargo on free-trade grounds, but Mr. Ratliff notes that he knows other prominent conservatives who began opposing it more recently. They haven't made public comments, he says, because they fear the political backlash from conservative Cubans in Miami.

The newly formed Association for Free Trade with Cuba argues: ``If the US can trade with Vietnam and China, why not Cuba?'' The group, which represents some 50 small and medium-sized businesses nationwide, says Americans are losing profits to European and Latin American companies that invest in Cuba. A study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University estimates that US trade with Cuba would be worth $1.3 billion to $2 billion the first year the embargo is lifted and up to $6.5 billion after a few years.

The US State Department argues that US businesses don't have much to gain in Cuba these days. Michael Skol, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, says European investments are ``mostly short-term profit-taking.''

He says the US embargo remains in place because the Castro administration still violates human rights. The US lifted the trade embargo against Vietnam, Mr. Skol explains, because Hanoi has made good progress resolving the issue of Americans missing in action from the Vietnam War. ``There's no such parallel progress in Cuba,'' he says.

President Kennedy originally imposed the economic blockade after Cuba nationalized the property of various US companies. Over the years, the US expanded the rationale for the embargo to include Fidel Castro's support for revolutionary movements abroad, the presence of Cuban troops in Africa, and his close alliance with the ex-Soviet Union. More recently, the US argued that continued trade sanctions help promote democracy in Cuba by isolating the Castro administration.

In 1992, the US enacted the Cuban Democracy Act, which prohibits subsidiaries of US firms from trading or investing in Cuba. But passage of that law proved unpopular internationally, and the United Nations voted 59-to-3 that year to condemn the US embargo.

The embargo has not deterred many foreign corporations from doing business with Cuba. Grupo Sol, a Spanish tourism company, has invested $78 million in three hotels, and six Canadian firms have reportedly formed joint ventures to mine Cuban nickel and other minerals. Last year, Canada exported almost $150 million in goods to Cuba.

Members of the San Francisco-based Association for Free Trade with Cuba argue that citizens of both countries would benefit from an end to the blockade. Peter Camejo, a former leftist political activist, now heads Progressive Assets Management and the import-export company Earth Trade, both based in Oakland, Calif. His company hopes to import Cuba's organic agricultural products.

Cuba is switching to all-organic methods, in part, because it can't afford to import fertilizers and pesticides. ``We see this as a potentially powerful experiment to show we can go to organic farming and make healthier food for people,'' Mr. Camejo says.

He says the blockade has been unsuccessful. ``The blockade is not perceived by the Cuban people as a response to a lack of democracy,'' Camejo says. In fact, he adds, many Cubans see it as hypocritical. ``In the past, when Cuba was under the human-rights-violating Batista dictatorship, the US had no problem with trade.''

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