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Administration Backs Changes to Embargo against Castro's Cuba

By Jack Nelson
Los Angeles Times

The Clinton administration, treading gently to overcome strong opposition from Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms, is working behind the scenes to marshal support for bipartisan legislation to exempt food and medicine from the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

Clinton has disclosed that he favors the bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), and John Warner (R-Va.). But the president is concerned about whether the bill's supporters can "get around" the opposition of Helms (R-N.C.), an adamant foe of the measure who has criticized Clinton for acting "alone" in recently ordering an easing of curbs on sending medicine and money to Cuba.

Support for exempting food and medicine from the embargo has been growing in both the Senate, where 25 members - including six Republicans - have signed the Dodd-Warner bill, and in the House, where another version of the legislation has been signed by 115 members, including seven Republicans.

Dodd said he was pleased to learn that Clinton had expressed support for the bill and said he views chances for Senate passage as good, despite the hurdle posed by Helms. Key Democratic aides in the Senate and House also expressed optimism Congress will pass the measure.

The United States has maintained a trade embargo against Cuba since the aborted 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, but support for it has ebbed as Cuban President Fidel Castro has grown older and most of the world's other Communist countries have turned to democracy.

Clinton announced the measures easing some sanctions in March, after Pope John Paul II's historic visit to Cuba. The measures - aimed at improving conditions for individual Cubans in the hopes that support for Castro would decline in the process - streamlined procedures for sending medical supplies to Cuba, authorized direct humanitarian flights from the United States to the island and legalized limited remittances from Cuban Americans to relatives there.

Dodd and Warner, in a letter to colleagues urging support for their bill, wrote of the "harmful impact of the current policy on the health of the Cuban people - particularly with respect to the health of children, the elderly and the infirm." The letter added: "We can no longer turn our backs on the suffering of innocent people less than 100 miles from our border."

Clinton expressed his support for the embargo legislation in a recent conversation with Dr. Peter Bourne, chairman of the American Association for World Health.