|Volume 9, Issue 4||Fall 1999|
New Wind Blowing on Cuba Policy
[Editorís note: The Latin America Working Group (LAWG) is a coalition of over sixty religious, human rights, policy, grassroots and development organizations striving for U.S. policies that promote peace, justice and sustainable development in the region. The Working Group regularly convenes its participating organizations to analyze developments in Washington and the hemisphere, and to craft common positions and effective strategies for action, while the Working Groupís staff members assist organizations in designing and implementing coordinated advocacy efforts and public education campaigns. Recently LAWG mobilized in support of the Ashcroft Amendment and other legislation advocating humanitarian trade with Cuba. The following was excerpted from LAWG documents with contributions from Mavis Anderson, Cuba Project Coordinator, and details recent congressional events relating to Cuba, as well as LAWGís activities.]
It was an amazing year in the effort to lift the embargo on the sale of food and medicine to Cuba. A strong new wind is certainly blowing through the Congress on U.S. policy toward Cuba. In August, a decisive Senate vote of 70-28 approved the Ashcroft amendment to the Agriculture Appropriations bill to authorize the sale of food and medicine to the Cuban government, the first significant move toward easing the embargo in 40 years. Ultimately, the amendment was struck from the bill by Republican leadership in the House-Senate conference committee. Nonetheless, they needed to resort to hardball, non-democratic tactics to accomplish it. Moreover, new initiatives and partners have emerged from the October struggle over Agriculture Appropriations.
Senators Ashcroft and Hagel introduced their amendment to eliminate unilateral sanctions on the sale of food and medicine and to institute very strict procedures under which these kind of sanctions could ever be implemented again while the Agriculture Appropriations bill was on the floor of the Senate this summer. The day after the amendment passed, Senate members opposed to trade with Cuba [Torricelli (D-NJ), Mack (R-FL) and Graham (D-FL)] pushed to get Cuba excluded from the Ashcroft amendment. As a compromise, a few modifications were agreed to, but the sale of food and medicine to the Cuban government remained covered by the provision.
Nonetheless, the House Agriculture Appropriations bill had no provision addressing unilateral sanctions. The House/Senate conference committee met on September 22nd to work out the differences between the two bills. At the conference committee stage, House and Senate conferees vote as separate groups and therefore, to resolve a dispute, both sides must accept proposed language. The Senate conferees immediately voted to reaffirm their position in support of the Ashcroft language.
The reaffirmation of the Ashcroft provision passed overwhelmingly by a vote of 7-4 among the Senate conferees. Individual votes remains unknown as no spectators were allowed and no record has been published. After this vote, it was clear that those seeking to remove Cuba from the Ashcroft provision would not find a majority of support among Senate conferees.
A discussion about excluding Cuba from the Ashcroft provision then proceeded to House conferees. The House Republican leadership said that they could not accept the Ashcroft provision and that they had a different proposal which kept most of the Ashcroft amendment, but put extra conditions on selling food and medicine to Cuba, making it impossible for sales to take place in the immediate future. Representatives Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO) then spoke against the House leadershipís attempt to exclude Cuba. At this point, the House Republican leadership recessed the conference committee rather than allow a vote on the Ashcroft provision. The general understanding was that the House conferees would have voted to allow the sale of food and medicine to Cuba.
After it became apparent that the Republican leadership could not secure the votes to exclude Cuba from the Ashcroft provision, and that conferees disagreed on dairy issues, the leadership never reconvened the conference committee. The Republican leadership made known that it had come up with its own compromise without the participation of the conferees. Their proposal dropped the Ashcroft language and the controversial dairy issues while increasing funds for a farmer assistance package. They then circulated the proposal on the entire Agriculture bill to members of the conference committee for their signature. For an agreement to be finalized without reconvening the committee, they only needed a majority of House and a majority of Senate conferees to sign the conference report, which occurred on September 30.
While the House Republican leadership thwarted efforts to allow the sales of food and medicine in the 11th hour, Cuba has risen as a focus of the trade debate in Washington. The extraordinary procedural manipulation of the legislative process infuriated Republicans as well as Democrats. The injustice of this defeat has angered, not discouraged, supporters of the Ashcroft amendment. Furthermore, press coverage of the Agriculture Appropriations conference committee has focused on this debate, not as a debate on unilateral sanctions, but as one on Cuba.
Furthermore, a promise was apparently made to Senator John Ashcroft (R-MO), the sponsor of the amendment, that this issue would be brought before the Senate again during this Congress. In fact, on October 10, Senator Ashcroft introduced S. 1771, the Food and Medicine for the World Act, "a bill to provide stability in the United States agriculture sector and to promote adequatecontinued ...