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House group wants embargo on Cuba lifted

A bipartisan group of House members unveiled plans Thursday to work toward lifting the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

Several members of the newly created Cuba Working Group characterized the embargo as a failure. Some expressed frustration with what they say is undue influence on Cuba policy by the Cuban-American community in South Florida.

Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., openly criticized a policy that "centers on a couple of counties in South Florida."

Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said it didn't make sense to fashion Cuba policy "just based on the electoral will of Florida."

The Cuba Working Group, introduced at a news conference, includes 17 Democrats and 17 Republicans - "liberals, conservatives, and moderates," members said. Several represent farm states wanting to trade with Cuba.

Members said they represent the "mainstream" in Congress and the United States.

"We feel another point of view should be in the public domain," said Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash. "We do not believe that food and medicine should be used as a weapon."

The group does not feature any member of Florida's congressional delegation.

Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican born in Cuba, said he rejected efforts by House members "to provide financing to the Cuban terrorist regime."

"It is inconceivable that in the midst of the U.S. war on terrorism, a war that has cost American lives, members of Congress would actually propose that we become business partners with a terrorist dictatorship," Diaz-Balart said in a statement.

Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., said he, too, believed it is wrong to engage Cuba's Fidel Castro.

"I know several of the members who have indicated that they are going to be the organizers of this group, and while I do not doubt their sincerity, I would encourage them to study thoroughly the situation in Cuba," Graham said.

"If they do, I think they will find that efforts to change Castro's regime by making unilateral concessions have failed other countries, including the Canadians and the Spanish. I do not believe that this is the time to do anything to strengthen his regime and extend its denial of basic human and civil rights to the people of Cuba."

Like the White House, the Cuba Working Group said it's conducting a review of U.S. policy in Cuba. Both reviews are due in April.

With South Florida's political clout, nobody seriously expects the Bush administration to lift the embargo. The administration's top Latin America diplomat, Cuba-born Otto Reich, is an outspoken critic of Castro.

The Cuba Working Group insists that U.S. policy in Cuba is inconsistent and hypocritical, considering that Americans can travel to places like Iran and North Korea but not Havana. They also point out that the United States trades with China and Vietnam.

Members dismiss charges that Cuba poses a threat to national security. On the contrary, several members said, engaging Cuba will help crack open the door to democracy and improve people's lives.

"We all are interested in improving American policy on Cuba," said Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. "We agree more engagement with Cuba will help push American values forward."

While the group's ultimate goal is to lift the decadesold embargo, the immediate legislative priorities are to lift the ban on travel to Cuba and permit private financing for agricultural sales to Cuba.