A week before Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba, a coalition of prominent Americans joined Tuesday to lobby to end U.S. restrictions on the sale of food and medicine to the Caribbean island.
“This cruel embargo is the cruelest of all embargoes that we have imposed on any people on Earth,” former Rep. Sam Gibbons, D-Fla., said at a news conference announcing the effort.
The reported ravages of the embargo are sure to be underscored by the pope, who opposes economic sanctions against nations such as Cuba, saying the effort hurts the poor most.
The coalition was announced by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and includes members and former members of Congress, former Cabinet members from Republican and Democratic administrations, and a host of business executives.
Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., who plans to attend the five days of papal Masses in Cuba, said: “It has caused me a great deal of pain that I am going with the pope and with Cardinal (John J.) O’Connor (of New York) and can’t answer the question why we are causing so much suffering to the people of Cuba.”
Legislation pending in Congress would eliminate restrictions on food and medicine set down in the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992. That act was introduced by Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., when he was a member of the House.
“Torricelli told us that (Fidel) Castro would be on his knees within six months,” said Rep. Esteban Edward Torres, D-Calif. “Well, Castro is still standing, and it is the Cuban people who are on their knees.”
Torres and Rep. James E. Leach, R-Iowa, have introduced legislation in the House to end the restrictions. Similar legislation pending in the Senate was introduced by Sens. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., and John W. Warner, R-Va.
The Torricelli bill, while imposing a general ban on sales by U.S. companies or their subsidiaries in other countries, does allow the U.S. government to license special sales of medicine and medical supplies to Cuba for humanitarian reasons.
But members of the coalition said Tuesday the licensing process is so cumbersome that few shipments are approved. Moreover, any ship or plane that carries goods to Cuba is then banned from doing business in the United States for six months. That limits the number of carriers available for taking medicine into Cuba.
The State Department says the U.S. government has licensed sales to Cuba of less than $2 million worth of medicine and medical supplies by U.S. companies and their subsidiaries since 1992. The United States also has licensed $227 million in humanitarian donations of medicine and medical supplies to Cuba by charitable groups in the last four years.
In contrast, according to a document prepared by the coalition, Cuba purchased $500 million worth of medicine and supplies from U.S. subsidiaries in 1991 alone.
Members of the coalition include former members of the Cabinet: Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr., secretary of Treasury in the first Clinton administration; Frank C. Carlucci, national security adviser and secretary of defense in the Reagan administration; Carla A. Hills, secretary of housing and urban development in the Ford administration and U.S. trade representative in the Bush administration; and Elliott Richardson, attorney general in the Nixon administration.
Among others on the council are former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker and former Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver.