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US To Allow More Contact With Cuba

January 5, 1999 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Clinton administration plans to allow more contact between Americans and Cubans and to substantially increase the number of Americans eligible to send money to needy Cubans, a senior official disclosed Monday.

President Clinton also plans to approve the opening of direct mail service to the island and an expansion of both direct charter flights to Cuba and the sale of food to entities independent of the government.

A formal announcement was expected Tuesday.

The senior official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said the measures are not intended to improve relations with the Cuban government, but to show support for the Cuban people. She added that the U.S. embargo against Cuba, imposed 37 years, ago will remain in effect. Another official said the measures are part of the administration’s goal of promoting peaceful democratic change on the island.

It was not clear how the Cuban government would respond to the initiatives.

One of the early tests of the initiative will come when a delegation from the Baltimore Orioles travels to Havana, perhaps as early as this week, to open discussions on the possibility of an exhibition baseball game with a Cuban squad in March. The Cuban team would be invited for a return match in Baltimore.

The profits would be earmarked for a private relief organization, possibly Catholic Relief Services, which is based in Baltimore and has carried out relief work on the island for years.

At the same time, the official disclosed that a proposal for the creation of a presidential bipartisan commission to review U.S. policy toward Cuba has been rejected.

She said a bipartisan consensus on Cuba already exists in the United States and therefore such a commission was not needed.

The proposal, strongly opposed by conservatives, has been supported by a three former secretaries of state, all Republicans, and more than 20 senators, including more than half the Republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., who spearheaded to Senate effort for a commission, expressed disappointment over the decision. He called it ``a lost opportunity for America to lead″ and said current policy treats Cuba more cruelly than it does Iraq and North Korea, where U.S. embargoes are less restrictive.

``What does that say of the nation that projects itself as the world leader?″ Warner asked in an interview.

At present, cash transfers to needy Cubans can be sent only by family members in the United States. The limit is $1,200 annually. Under the administration proposal, the limit would remain the same but the cash transfers could be made by any U.S. resident.

The U.S. embargo forbids the sale of food to Cuba by U.S. firms, but the new proposal would revise that prohibition so long as the recipient is an entity independent of the government, such as the Catholic Church.

Also contemplated is the licensed sale of fertilizer, pesticides and farm machinery to independent farmers in Cuba. The official said steps must be taken to ensure that any such transactions do not end up benefiting the Cuban government.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright telephoned lawmakers particularly interested in the Cuba issue to advise them of Clinton’s plans.

The measures drew criticism from two Cuban-American members of Congress, both Florida Republicans. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said the proposals are a mask to hide the administration’s ``true intention of normalizing relations with the Cuban dictator.″

Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart said he opposes any sale or financing of agricultural products to Cuba, calling it illegal.

``If you proceed by executive order, that would violate the law,″ Diaz-Balart said he told Albright. ``Please review this before proceeding.″

But the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, which advocates renewal of business ties with Cuba, predicted that U.S. companies will welcome the opportunity to sell food to Cuba once again. It said they also will take advantage of the opportunity to reopen direct mail service.

Mail deliveries between the countries are possible but often take months. The proposal for direct service follows a significant expansion of U.S.-Cuban telephone communications earlier in the decade, made possible by an extensive modernization program.

Direct charter flights to Cuba were legal until 1996 when Cuban MiGs shot down four unarmed Miami-based planes north of Cuba. Clinton retaliated by banning such flights but lifted the ban last March. His new proposal contemplates an easing of existing restrictions on such flights, possibly including allowing flights from U.S. cities other than Miami.

The March 1998 announcement also ended a ban on remittances that had been in effect since 1994.

For the most part the measures are consistent with provisions of the 1992 Cuba Democracy Act, which calls for greater exchanges between the two peoples. The official said increased exchanges are contemplated in the cultural, religious, educational and athletic spheres.

The existing ban on tourism by Americans to Cuba will remain in effect.

Officials were vague about the reasons for the timing of the announcement, which comes just three days after President Fidel Castro celebrated the 40th anniversary of his revolution. In a speech, Castro attacked the U.S. embargo against the island and praised the Cuban people for withstanding it for so long.

Last year, Castro rejected a U.S. offer to donate food to Cuba as part of a U.N. World Food Program effort to help alleviate the effects of drought.