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Backers of Cuba embargo losing ground in Congress

Losing Elian was bad enough, but hard-line Cuban-Americans in Miami may be in for a ruder shock.

Under pressure from a coalition of U.S. farmers and humanitarian opponents of the economic embargo against Cuba, Congress is poised next week to lift a ban on the sale of food and medicines to the government of Fidel Castro.

Supporters of the embargo, the centerpiece of America's Cuba policy since its passage in 1962, defeated a similar measure last year. But this time they may be powerless to stop the legislation.

In an unusual turn of events, the embargo issue no longer revolves solely around Cuba. Instead, lobbying over the bill has been caught up in election-year politics pitting U.S. farmers against the pro-embargo lobby.

"The tables have turned," said Silvia Wilhelm, executive director of Americans for Humanitarian Trade With Cuba, a lobby group. "This is a domestic issue now which is pushing the agenda."

Farm-state lawmakers are eager to help constituents suffering from low commodity prices. The bill is especially popular in the Mississippi Delta, which sold $100-million a year in produce to Cuba before 1962.

Bills passed last week by committees in both the House and Senate would remove food and medicine from the traditional package of economic sanctions used against so-called rogue states including Cuba, Iran, Libya, Sudan and North Korea.

The proposed Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act would allow farmers access to markets worth $7-billion. Backed by strong bipartisan support, the bills are headed for a final vote next week. The measure has caught the pro-embargo lobby off guard. After years of facing challenges from poorly financed liberal church and advocacy groups, the Cuba lobby finds itself up against agribusiness interests.

"You've got the agriculture groups and the humanitarian groups together on this," said Rob Neal, aide to Rep. George Nethercutt, a Washington Republican who is one of the sponsors of the bill. "It's an unbeatable coalition."

Even lawmakers who once could be counted on to support the Cuba embargo have shifted alliances. The influential conservative Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., dropped his opposition, albeit only after an amendment was added to prohibit any sales to Cuba being financed with government credits.

One Texas Democrat, Charles Stenholm, a leading conservative who sits on the House Agriculture Committee, was previously a loyal supporter of embargo legislation against Cuba. Stenholm remains a firm critic of Fidel Castro. But he believes the embargo has done little to advance U.S. interests.

"More and more members of Congress are beginning to realize that unilateral embargoes do not work," he said. "We're not hurting Fidel Castro. All we do is hurt our own producers, and the consumers in the country we are trying to hurt."

Last month Stenholm led a delegation to Cuba and came away convinced a new policy is required. "The best way to allow the Cuban people to evolve into a new form of government is to have more openness with them. The more we open, the quicker Castro will fall."

But the pro-embargo lobby, led by Cuban-American members of Congress, hasn't given up. "The forces against us are organized," said Steve Vermillion, spokesman for Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla. "But we don't think the fight is over."

Relaxing the embargo is unlikely to bring about rapid economic improvement for Cuba, analysts say. "It's far more symbolic than it is monetary in value in the short term," said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, which represents U.S. businesses.

Cuba could save on transportation costs by buying American medical and agricultural goods, but without U.S. credits Havana would probably be obliged to rely on its regular customers _ China and Vietnam _ while it looked for private financing.

Although stripping the embargo of restrictions on food and medicine sales is unlikely to bring an overhaul of U.S. policy toward Cuba, it nonetheless threatens to undermine the stranglehold on decision-making Cuban-Americans have long enjoyed.

Analysts in Miami note that discussion of the bill has been muted in local Spanish-language media.

"They are still wrapped up in Elian, and there is a general understanding that there's been a big shift in the debate in Congress," said Antonio Zamora, a prominent lawyer and former co-founder of the Cuban American National Foundation, the powerful exile lobby group.

"The exile leadership is in denial. The reality is we are facing another big defeat."