If House Republican leaders wanted to further alienate the Cuban people, they couldn't have done a much better job of it than they did in the Fiscal Year 2001 agricultural appropriations bill.
The bill, which passed the House and Senate by overwhelming margins, makes the sale of food and medicine exempt from U.S. unilateral embargoes for the first time since 1962. While the bill's language is aimed at Cuba, Iran, Sudan, Libya and North Korea may also benefit.
But it also bars U.S. government or private financing for sales of food to Cuba. And it restricts the ability of U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba, even for legal or humanitarian reasons.
The language, which was left in the bill at the insistence of congressmen representing Miami's Cuban refugees, prompted one Cuban official to issue a statement saying his government would not buy "one aspirin nor a grain of rice nor wheat or corn under these conditions."
Cuba's government reportedly staged massive demonstrations against the United States on the day that the Senate was scheduled to debate and vote on the spending bill.
Republican senators like Pat Roberts of Kansas and Thad Cochran of Mississippi and representatives like Jay Dickey of Arkansas fought hard to remove the travel restrictions from the conference report on the bill.
In the end, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas threatened to hold up action on the entire $78 billion appropriations bill if the language was not retained, apparently to appease the Florida congressional delegation. Fellow Texan and Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush has said he is opposed to lifting trade sanctions against Cuba.
DeLay's intransigence threatens a market USDA analysts say could reach $1 billion over the next five years. But, more importantly, it threatens to further alienate many Cubans, according to U.S. observers who have visited Cuba.
"The Cuban people don't hold Fidel Castro responsible for the conditions they face," said Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who along with fellow Arkansan, Rep. Marion Berry, traveled to Cuba last May. "They hold us responsible."
A group of U.S. farm leaders who were in Cuba earlier this month said Cuban leaders left little doubt about their annoyance when the appropriations bill language came up in conversations.
"While the practical effect may not be large, it certainly looms large to the Cubans for whom tourism is the leading source of foreign exchange," said Alan Tracy, president of U.S. Wheat Associates. "We spent a lot of time trying to convince them to give us a chance."
While most analysts have said sales would be slow initially because of Cuba's depressed economy, some, like Riceland Foods President Richard Bell, say they think exports could eventually be much higher than anticipated because of the potential lowering of prices the U.S. entry into the market could bring.
Bell, who was in Cuba in early September, said he believes Cuba's annual imports of milled rice could reach 550,000 to 600,000 metric tons rather than the 400,000 metric tons the industry has been forecasting "if annual rice consumption is allowed to reach its full potential."