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A Cross To Bear Amid Pope’s Embargo Critique, U.S. Considers Aid Plan.

Days after Pope John Paul II denounced the U.S. embargo against Cuba as “ethically unacceptable,” the Clinton administration said Tuesday it will consider a proposal to send U.S. government aid to Cuba through the American Red Cross.

The proposal, which is still on the drawing board, is being drafted by Sen. Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican and staunch advocate of the 36-year trade ban, and by the Cuban American National Foundation, the influential exile lobby.

It calls for sending federal food aid to Cuba, in conjunction with private donations of food and medical supplies, which would be distributed by the American Red Cross “to the neediest people, especially political prisoners and their families,” according to a draft outline of the bill obtained by The Miami Herald.

While the proposal appears to undercut the embargo, supporters quietly described it as mainly a political gambit that would make the United States appear more sensitive to suffering on the island and place the government of Cuban President Fidel Castro on the defensive.

State Department spokeswoman Lula Rodriguez said the proposal “sounds like an initiative that merits consideration, and we look forward to an opportunity to talk to the sponsors.”

Marc Thiessen, spokesman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Helms chairs, declined to discuss details of the proposal Tuesday, except to say he was conferring with exile leaders. He was reached by telephone in Cuba, where he is traveling with Roger Noriega, Helms’ adviser on Latin American affairs.

“We’ve been talking with the (Cuban American) community, and the community has been talking about ways to capitalize on the pope’s visit,” Thiessen said.

He denied that his visit had prompted a change of heart on the embargo. In Cuba, he said, he has seen “pharmacies stocked with medicines (and) bakeries overflowing with bread,” but only for customers with U.S. dollars.

Asserting that only Castro is to blame for shortages of food and medicine, Thiessen said, “There will be no initiative that in any way loosens the embargo. The embargo is locked in, here to stay.”

The Cuban American National Foundation declined to comment Tuesday, but plans to hold a press briefing later this week, said spokeswoman Mariela Ferretti.

In 1996, Congress passed Helms’ first initiative on Cuba, the Helms-Burton Act, which sought to deter foreign investment in Cuba by exposing foreigners to U.S. lawsuits or the possibility of losing U.S. visas.

Both supporters and critics of the new Helms proposal said it appears to contain one or more “poison pills,” or conditions that would make it unacceptable to Castro. They noted that Castro has never allowed the American Red Cross to operate in Cuba and would be unlikely to accept delivery of aid from a U.S. vessel, which by law must transport such aid.

Several congressional sources said the Helms plan is an effort to outflank supporters of legislation by Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and Rep. Esteban Torres, D-Calif., that would lift the ban on sales of U.S. food and medicine to the island. U.S. law currently allows donation of food to Cuba and sale of medicines and medical supplies only if they are distributed through nongovernmental groups, and their “end-use” can be verified.

“You always want to give them (members of Congress) something to vote for,” said one Democratic aide who supports strong sanctions against Cuba. “We’re looking at (the Helms plan) as a sensible alternative to address humanitarian concerns without giving in” to Castro.

The Torres-Dodd bill has gained important backing from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and such prominent Republicans as Sen. John Warner of Virginia and Rep. James Leach, chairman of the House Banking Committee.

U.S. Roman Catholic bishops, stirred by the pope’s embargo criticism, plan to make their first public statement on U.S. law toward Cuba by endorsing the Torres-Dodd legislation, said Tom Quigley, Latin American adviser for the U.S. Catholic Conference.

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., another embargo critic, said the pontiff’s criticism of the embargo is compelling many Americans to rethink the policy of economic pressure.

“A lot of people are asking: Why in the world isn’t the U.S. doing something to improve the quality of life of the average Cuban who needs medical attention?” said McGovern, who said he toured a pediatric facility in Cuba last week where some U.S.-made equipment was rendered useless for lack of spare parts.

Administration officials counter that the United States already leads the world in humanitarian aid to Cuba, having licensed more than $1 billion in all types of private donations, including food, since 1992.

“The U.S. continues to believe that maintaining pressure on the Cuban government through our embargo is fundamental to encouraging systemic democratic change,” Rodriguez said.