By ANNE FLAHERTY
WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. policy of shunning communist Cuba by imposing a strict trade embargo has failed to prod the island nation toward democracy and should be re-evaluated, according to the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"We must recognize the ineffectiveness of our current policy and deal with the Cuban regime in a way that enhances U.S. interests," wrote Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., in a report dated Monday.
The report lends new weight to a bipartisan view in Congress that Raul Castro's rise to power has opened a window for U.S.-Cuban relations. President Barack Obama has promised a fresh look at the U.S. policy. He says he would be open to meeting with Castro, who took over as Cuba's president for his ailing brother, Fidel. Obama also supports easing limitations on the number of visits and the amount of money sent to Cuba by family members in the U.S.
But like his predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama has said he believes the embargo provides important leverage with the country's leaders. Lugar's suggestion that the U.S. rethink that position was included in an assessment of U.S.-Cuban relations written by his senior staffer, Carl Meacham, who traveled to Cuba in January. The report was scheduled to be distributed this week among Lugar's Senate colleagues. While the report stops short of calling an end to the ban, it offers a harsh assessment of U.S. policies. It charges that the existing embargo provides the Cuban government a convenient "scapegoat" for the nation's economic difficulties, ignores recent political developments and keeps the U.S. from gaining a "broader understanding of events on the island." "By directing policy toward an unlikely scenario of a short-term democratic transition on the island and rejecting most tools of diplomatic engagement, the U.S. is left as a powerless bystander, watching events unfold at a distance," the report states. Ending the embargo would require an act of Congress because lawmakers wrote key parts of the restrictions into law in 1992 and 1996. The 1996 law, passed shortly after Cuban fighter jets shot down two planes operated by a Miami-based anti-Castro group, bars the United States from normalizing relations with Cuba as long as Fidel or Raul Castro is involved in the Cuban government. In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a law allowing the sale of agricultural goods and medicine to Cuba for humanitarian reasons. Since then, agricultural sales to Cuba have risen from almost nothing to more than $440 million last year. The report points out that Obama could engage Cuba on this and other issues, such as drug interdiction, migration and terrorism.