Clinton relaxes embargo, rules out policy review


President Clinton yesterday announced a further relaxation of the US embargo of Cuba, but the White House said he had rejected a broad review of the US policy of isolating the communist-ruled nation.

Mr Clinton said he had authorised increased charter passenger flights to and from Cuba, expanded payments sent to Cuban families by US residents, approved direct mail service with the island, and approved the sale of US food and agricultural supplies to non-governmental entities. He also authorised increased exchanges of athletes, scientists and others.

US officials have said they plan to send representatives of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team to Cuba as early as this week to arrange some exhibition games for charities working in Cuba.

Mr Clinton said in a statement he was hoping to build on a previous relaxation of sanctions announced in March 1998. "These steps are designed to help the Cuban people without strengthening the Cuban government" of President Fidel Castro, he said.

"They are consistent with our policy of keeping pressure on the regime for democratic change - through the embargo and vigorous diplomatic initiatives - while finding ways to reach out to the Cuban people through humanitarian efforts and help in developing civil society." Mr Clinton rejected a proposal by 15, mostly Republican, US senators who wrote to him in October 1998 suggesting that a commission should take a fresh look at US Cuba policy, the White House spokesman, Mr Joe Lockhart, said.

Mr Lockhart called the proposal "constructive" but said Mr Clinton had decided the moves announced yesterday were the best way forward.

The announcements were coupled with a refusal by the US administration to endorse a proposed commission that would conduct a review of US policy towards Cuba.

While broadening ties between Americans and Cubans, the measures do not change the economic embargo that the US imposed on Cuba in 1962 after Dr Castro aligned himself with Moscow.

The steps, however, were denounced by Florida Republicans whose constituency is rabidly opposed to Dr Castro.

Mr Clinton's decision marked a setback for advocates of an end to the US embargo who had marshalled support for the proposal from senior Republicans. Prospects for a more substantial shift appeared dim and US officials admitted privately that an all-out thaw in relations with Cuba would probably not take place while the 73-year-old Dr Castro remained in power.

The US had toughened its policy on Cuba in 1996, after the shooting down of two US civilian aircraft. It enacted legislation that targeted foreign investors in Cuba.

But the eased restrictions, coupled with Mr Clinton's decision to waive the toughest provisions of the 1996 law, brought US policy back to its more moderate stance of the early 1990s.

The move also took into account Pope John Paul's landmark visit to Cuba a year ago during which he called for an end to the US embargo. The Pope maintains that the economic hardship stemming from the embargo will breed radicalism in Cuba and thwart US attempts to promote a non-violent transition to democracy.