WASHINGTON, D.C. As President Bush prepares to tighten sanctions on Cuba, a rising chorus of opponents includes some lawmakers who usually take his side: Kansas congressmen.
Led by Rep. Jerry Moran and Sen. Pat Roberts, free trade with Cuba is popular with Kansas and other farm-state congressmen, who look at the country ruled by Fidel Castro under a U.S. trade and travel embargo since the 1960s as a promising new market for Kansas farmers.
They're joined by lawmakers across farm states who see U.S. policy toward Cuba as motivated more by Florida politics than national interest and are willing to break with a popular president to promote their constituents' interests.
Bush said Wednesday that the embargo would stand as long as Castro was in power.
"Fidel Castro is a dictator, and he is repressive," Bush said. "He ought to have free elections. And he ought to have a free press. And he ought to free his prisoners. And he ought to encourage free enterprise."
But Moran, R-Hays, said decades-old government opposition to closer Cuban ties was a relic of the Cold War that didn't make sense today.
"We've been trying something for 42 years that has done nothing but fail," said Moran, who is a member of the congressional Cuba Working Group, a coalition of 20 Republican and 20 Democratic congressman backing free trade with Cuba.
On Wednesday, the Cuba Working Group proposed a nine-point program that calls for repealing the travel ban, allowing unsubsidized exports of agricultural and medical products, communicating with Cubans through scholarships instead of television and Radio Marti, cooperating on hemispheric security and environmental protection, and settling property claims.
The U.S. trade embargo on Cuba started in 1962, two years after Castro took power in a communist overthrow. After decades of often-tense relations, the U.S.-Cuban relationship has gained greater public attention in recent weeks.
Carter rejects weapons claim
Last week, a Bush administration official claimed that Cuba was developing biological weapons capacity. But former President Jimmy Carter, whose visit to Cuba this week is the first by a current or former U.S. president during the Castro era, said he and accompanying weapons experts had found no evidence to support the claim.
Bush plans to address Cuba trade directly in a speech on Monday, with an eye toward cutting much of what little trade exists. Meanwhile, he faces a key upcoming Senate vote on trade promotion authority, which would allow him to more easily negotiate trade agreements. Roberts said he was planning to introduce an amendment that would encourage private investment in Cuba, currently forbidden under the embargo.
Roberts, head of a Senate subcommittee on terrorism, said he doubted that Cuba posed a bioterror threat to the United States. Roberts has also visited Cuba and met with Castro.
Bush rejects pleas
"I think he's very worried about the drug cartels taking over his country," Roberts said. "We should also be concerned about that. I think we're foolish not to engage Cuba."
Some trade with Cuba already takes place. Under Moran-sponsored legislation passed last year, Cuba has bought about $73 million of agricultural projects since Thanksgiving. But that trade remains severely restricted. A more open Cuba would help Kansas farmers, Moran said.
"There is no reason further purchase of commodities shouldn't take place," he said.
But the Bush administration rejects those arguments, citing Castro's human rights record and history of hostility to the United States as reasons to continue the embargo.
"The president believes that trade with Cuba ends up giving the government more resources to repress its people," Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said. "History has shown that when Cuba receives the benefits of trade from other nations, those benefits are not passed on to the Cuban people."