Statement of the Honorable Esteban E. Torres
Member of Congress

Testimony Before the Subcommittee on Trade
of the House Committee on Ways and Means

Hearing on U.S. Economic and Trade Policy Toward Cuba

May 7, 1998

Mr. Chairman, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen:

First, I wish to congratulate, the Chairman of this Subcommittee, my esteemed Colleague, Congressman Phil Crane for scheduling this hearing, and for the integrity of its agenda and focus. Very few public policy issues provoke the emotion, vehemence, polarization, disagreement, disinformation and pure hostility that a discussion of U.S. --Cuba policy does. We will undoubtedly witness this in the remarks of my colleagues who are the "guards" of the embargo policy, and whose comments will follow mine. Sadly, it is an arena where supporters of our current policy, which politically and economically isolates Cuba, portray those who disagree with them as somehow lacking in patriotism, as somehow lacking in respect for human rights, as being duplicitous and as being allies of the Cuban leaders they so bitterly hate. It is a foreign policy issue that does not tolerate a middle ground. It is a policy of almost total economic embargo, whose dire-- and many maintain, illegal -- effects upon the Cuban people are denied publicly and then made the object of "humanitarian" aid strategies and programs. So, I congratulate Chairman Crane, my colleagues on this subcommittee and their staff for putting needed focus on our policy towards Cuba and its effects upon the Cuban people.
Mr. Chairman, I am the author of the Cuban Humanitarian Trade Act, H.R. 1951. Along with 121 of my colleagues, we are proposing that our current total embargo on the commercial sale of food, and our current defacto embargo on the commercial sale of medicine, medical equipment and supplies, be lifted.
My legislative efforts came after I had an opportunity to see with my own eyes, the condition of the Cuban people, and after I studied reports from medical authorities about the effects of our policies. I understand also from our military experts that Cuba has no military capabilities to project itself beyond its borders, and that its army maintains a totally defensive posture, and of course, the Cold War ended almost 10 years ago. As a final cap: we maintain a fully outfitted naval base on the Island.
While there is much disagreement about the impact off our current policies, there is no disagreement about the fact that the Cuban people are suffering. Some of my colleagues, who are the principal architects and defenders of our current embargo, maintain that it is Fidel Castro who is causing the suffering, the shortages of food and of medicine. In spite of the fact that they have brilliantly designed, implemented and maintained one of the harshest economic embargos in the world, they speak as if our policies have no negative impact upon the Cuban people. But, my colleagues on this subcommittee know full well that an economic embargo is no tea party. An economic embargo is a serious and drastic policy option available to nations, and usually invoked cautiously and in cooperation and conjunction with other policy options and in full consultation and coordination with one's allies. But not our Cuban embargo. It is applied with the grace of a sledgehammer and maintained, almost boastfully, in the face of the near total opposition of all of our nation's allies.
Embargo supporters do not want the public to know the difference between a unilateral embargo, where one country, alone, maintains trade prohibitions against another country, and between a multilateral trade embargo, where multiple countries build and maintain the embargo against the offending nation. Our embargo against Cuba is a unilateral embargo: it enjoys no support from our allies, it isolates us from our allies, it is ridiculed by our allies, and our enemies use it to demonstrate that the United States is in a period of decline. It also doesn't work. Unilateral embargos don't work. We have had enough time to measure its effects: it does not create the climate for democracy, it does not create a movement toward a market-oriented economy, it does not create the basis for free and fair civic society. Instead, it creates deprivation and hardships, it denies a population the basic necessities of life, and it deliberately provokes misery and discontent. Its authors intended that this misery and discontent would provoke civil unrest and cause an overthrow of the Castro government. It hasn't, but it has become Fidel Castro's ally, and used by him to place the blame for the suffering and unhappiness of the Cuban people upon the United States.
In spite of profound changes in geopolitical relationships, especially where private sector, free market dynamics are being portrayed as the most important vehicle for building democratic institutions, U.S. -- Cuba policy remains one of almost completely prohibiting any free market activity.
Supporters are hesitant to own up to the full effects upon the Cuban people of their carefully crafted embargo. They choose instead to attempt to discredit the messenger, as happened with the report from the American Association for World Health. They accuse all critics as dupes or allies of Fidel Castro. The opinion of the American Association for World Health is not easily dismissed, however. It is a U.S. Committee for the World Health Organization whose honorary chairman is President Jimmy Carter. Its team performed a year-long review of the implications of embargo restrictions which included on-site visits to 46 treatment centers and related facilities, 160 interviews with medical professionals and other specialists, government officials, representatives of non-governmental organizations, churches and international aid agencies. Their 300 page report, a study by distinguished medical experts, concluded:
"The U.S. embargo of Cuba has dramatically harmed the health and nutrition of large numbers of ordinary Cuban citizens. . . it is our expert medical opinion that the U.S. embargo has caused a significant rise in suffering - and even deaths - in Cuba. . . . the U.S. trade embargo - one of the most stringent embargoes of its kind, prohibiting the sale of food and sharply restricting the sale of medicines and medical equipment - was further tightened by the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act."
In many instances they misrepresent facts and figures to their advantage. One of our colleagues, one of the embargo's most vehement defenders, at a public hearing told the subcommittee that "fifty percent of all cocaine from South America comes through Cuban waters." Not one DOD or DEA witness would back up that misstatement because in spite of Cuba's proximity to Florida, less than 9 percent of the South American drug traffic tries to use Cuban waters as a cover for their activities. One of the main reasons is that the Cuban government has been strongly allied with U.S. anti-drug efforts, but you won't hear about this from pro-embargo supporters.
In another instance, defenders of our economic embargo maintain that the sale of medicine is permitted under the embargo. Virtually every communication from embargo supporters states that the sale of medicine is legal under U.S. laws. True in fact, except that the administration of the licensing and regulation hurdles that a U.S. business must comply with in order to transact medical sales business with Cuba have created a defacto embargo which makes any real sales insignificant in volume. It discourages also real commercial sales efforts.
Our Department of State in a "Fact Sheet" stated that licenses to sell medicine and medical supplies are "routinely" issued. In statements which were widely distributed to the U.S. Congress the Department of State maintained:
"Since 1992, 36 of 39 license requests have been approved for U.S. companies and their subsidiaries for sales of medical items to Cuba. Thirty-one (31) licenses were for the commercial sale of medicines, medical equipment, and related supplies to Cuba. Five (5) licenses were for travel to Cuba by representatives of American pharmaceutical companies to explore possible sales."
From this statement, my colleagues deduced that the sale of medicine by U.S. businesses to Cuba was "routine", no problems.
Recently, my office received and analyzed copies of these 36 "routinely" approved requests for licenses to sell medicine to Cuba. Either the Department of State does not know what a commercial sale by a U.S. company is, or, it is misleading the U.S. Congress. Five (5) licenses were for travel only: no sales here. Eleven (11) of the approved sales licences were not to U.S. businesses selling to Cuba, but were to international organizations (such as the United Nations) which planned to donate potions of the medicine and supplies to Cuba rather than sell them. Actually these "donated" sales amounted to about 2/3 of the total U.S. medical sales to Cuba cited by DOS. Eight remaining licenses were entered into prior to the enactment of the Cuban Democracy Act, leaving only eight (8) licenses for commercial sales of medicine by U.S. companies to Cuba. I am providing copies of these license requests so that they may be entered into this hearing record for members of the public to determine the accuracy of our State Departments claims.
Our total embargo on the sale of food to Cuba is not only defenseless, it is a violation of international and moral law. Have you ever heard the embargo architects and supporters defend their right to deny the commercial sale of food by U.S. businesses to Cuba? Has the Department of State issued a "Fact Sheet" on this violation of the Geneva Convention? We need to ask their spokesperson, who is here today: to name the countries in this dangerous world against which the U.S. has a total commercial embargo on the sale of food. I believe the answer is, just Cuba.
My colleagues, recently a Congressional delegation visited Cuba. In advance of their trip, they asked two stanch embargo defenders, who are Members of Congress, to provide them with a list of the names of Cubans who were in opposition to the Castro government and with whom they could meet to discuss the embargo. In Cuba, they contacted the persons on this list, and had them invited to meet with them at our U.S. Interest Section. At this meeting, one of the Members of Congress -- who had voted for Helms - Burton asked for a "yes or no" answer to the question: "Do you support the U.S. embargo against Cuba?" Every one of these Cubans, opponents of the Castro government, said "no," they strongly opposed the embargo. Not one supported the embargo. One of this group of human rights activists, independent journalists and religious representatives summed up the overwhelming opinion of the Cuban people: this person told the Congressmen: "Only a masochist would support the embargo".
My friends, why is it that the embargo supporters will not tell you this simple fact: Castro's opposition in Cuba overwhelmingly oppose our embargo. The Cuban people as a whole dream for the day when it will be lifted.
Mr. Chairman and my colleagues, as much as our U.S. policy towards Cuba is defended and justified by misstatements, it is also shrouded in darkness. Just look at the record: covert invasions, assassination attempts, commando activities, nuclear threats, beatings, jailing, human rights violations, embargos on food, medicine, travel, alienation of our allies, all in the name of wanting to bring democracy to the Cuban people. It isn't working. It isn't moral and it does not bring credit to a country that prides itself as being both humane and fair. I would ask you to look at our embargo through the eyes of very talented Californian, who spent a number of months on a photojournalistic assignment in Cuba. Her name is Heidi McGurrin and she currently has an exhibition of her Cuban photographs in the Cannon Rotunda. These are her words:
"If you imagine many beautiful hummingbirds, multicolored and gentle beauties, whose little necks were held by large clumsy hateful hands, who squeezed them a little more each chance they get, This is what the embargo reminds me of."
As a start, towards getting these hands off of the necks of the Cuban people, I would ask my colleagues to support efforts to remove food and medicine from our misguided embargo against Cuba.
I have a further statement and some documentation which I request be entered into this hearing record along with my remarks. I thank the Chairman and Members of the Committee for calling this hearing and for opening this public dialogue on the important issue of our current policy towards Cuba.
Thank you very much.


Chairman Crane, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen:
I congratulate my esteemed Colleague, Chairman Phil Crane for scheduling this hearing, and for bringing attention to the important topic of U.S. Economic an Trade Policy Toward Cuba.
Given the attention on Cuba as a result of the recent Pope's visit, it is vital that the U.S. appraise the impact of its Cuba policy. Public hearings are an important aspect of this appraisal process and I am grateful for this opportunity to share with this Subcommittee some of my perspectives on current U.S. - Cuba policy.
U.S. - Cuba policy has been remarkably consistent for the past 38 years: it is a policy which seeks to isolate Cuba politically and economically. A keystone of this policy is the maintenance of a total economic embargo.
In my remarks today, I would like to share with you some of the unique aspects of U.S. - Cuba policy which make our embargo one of the harshest in the world, and one which almost totally isolates the U.S. from all of its allies worldwide.
One characteristic of current U.S. Cuban policy is that in spite of profound changes in geopolitical relationships, where private sector, free market dynamics are being portrayed as the most important vehicle for building an appreciation for, and the practice of, democratic institutions, U.S.- Cuba policies remain one of almost total economic embargo. A case in point: U.S. policy towards the People's Republic of China stresses most favored nation trading status as the core element of our relationship, and the centerpiece of the U.S.'s efforts to bring its belief in free market democracy to the world's largest Communist nation. With Cuba, for some reason, this dynamic does not apply. Instead, the U. S. does the opposite. The U.S. policy strategy for Cuba, one of the world's smallest socialist countries, is to implement, maintain and increasingly tighten one of the harshest economic embargoes in the world, all in the name of providing "support to the people of Cuba".
Let me identify some elements of the U.S. embargo against Cuba which in my opinion make it the "world's harshest".
* the U.S. embargo bars any ship that docks in Cuba from docking at any U.S. port for six months. Most international shipping agents refuse to allow any ship that meets the U.S. Coast Guard an Federal Maritime Certificate of Financial Responsibility requirements to sail to Cuba. This leaves only 12 to 15 of the worlds available tankers to call at Cuban ports. This provision alone thwarts Cuban purchases of food and medicine from other countries and, when ships are willing to dock, often doubles the cost of shipments.
* U.S. law stipulates on-site verification for medical sales. This provision forces companies to assume responsibility for end-use, a procedure that raises the financial and potential liability costs to companies and actively dissuades them from selling to Cuba. Efforts are further frustrated by the fact that neither the Treasury nor the Commerce department has published any regulations defining how to meet the on-site verification requirement.
* The U.S. embargo bans medical exports that could be used to develop Cuba's fledgling biotechnology industry. This provision thwarts Cuba's promising biotechnology industry, which has been developed in part to meet food and medicine requirements locally since the embargo thwarts the island's ability to import basic goods. The industry has produced several "firsts" including meningitis B and hepatitis vaccines, as well as the domestically produced vaccines which maintain Cuba's ranking as 26th in the world in infant and child mortality, similar to the U.S.
* Our policy of embargo against Cuba serves to isolate the U.S. internationally. It enjoys virtually no support from other nations. The U.S. embargo is roundly denounced by the world diplomatic and medical community. The United Nations has condemned this embargo for five years, as have numerous other organizations. In 1996 the U.N. condemned the embargo 137 to 3, the three being the U.S., Israel (which has a multi-million dollar investment in Cuba's citrus industry) an Uzbekistan.
* The embargo 'presumes denial' for licensed medical sales. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (called OFAC), in the U.S. Department of the Treasury, charged with the bulk of licensing medical sales to Cuba, interprets the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act (CDA) as discouraging medical sales. OFAC's Director testified before Congress: "In 1993 (licensed Cuban trade with U.S. subsidiaries) was down to $1.6 million....accounted for by approximately 15 or 16 licenses which were pre-CDA contracts....Frankly I believe the number next year to be even less, falling ultimately to zero." OFAC says 38 licenses have been issued since 1992, six for travel only. According to its own figures then, OFAC has granted a total of 14 licenses in five years for a dollar amount under $2 million. In 1991, the last year before CDA's enactment and time of deep recession, Cuba purchased $719 million of mostly food and medicine from U.S. subsidiaries, with $500 million of that for medicines.
* the U.S. embargo completely bans food sales. Like other Caribbean nations, Cuba imports most of its food. The free flow of medicine and food was allowed in the multi-lateral embargoes against North Korea, Vietnam, South Africa, Chile, El Salvador, the Soviet Union and Haiti. In recent UN - supported embargoes against Iraq and the former Yugoslavia, the U.S. joined the UN position that trade in both medicines and food must be allowed to maintain the health of civilian population.
As any visitor to Cuba can plainly see, the Cuban people are suffering. Supporters of currently U.S. policy argue that this suffering is the fault of the Cuban leadership. Without entering into the intricacies of this question, I believe that U.S. policy should make sure that the misery of the Cuban people is not in any way caused by U.S. restrictions on the sale of foods and medicine. Clearly, the current U.S. policy does not permit us this position.
As a matter of fact, prohibitions and restrictions on the sale of food and medicine are fairly recent. U.S. subsidiaries were allowed to sell food and medicine to Cuba before 1992, until passage of the Cuban Democracy Act which, in response to concerns voiced at the time, justified the admitted harsh measures as 'the nail in Castro's coffin'. Supporters of this harsh action promised that within six months the people would revolt against such deprivation and Castro would fall. The former Chairman of the U.S. House of Representative's Ways and Means Committee, a member of the U.S. Congress, representing a district in the State of Florida for 34 years, remembers the debate at that time about the health impact cutting off foods and medicine trade would have on the Cuban people. He recalls, and I quote: "There was a big debate about the health impact cutting off such sales would cause back then, but we were assured that such harsh measures would only last six months or so since the people would rebel against Castro and put 'the final nail in his coffin.' Well, here we are six years later and he's still walking around. But who knows how many Cuban people made it to coffins well ahead of their time because of these terrible restrictions."
President Castro's eminent demise is constantly stated as the reason for maintaining the U.S. embargo.
Just recently, on January 13, 1998, my Colleague from Florida, Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, one of the staunchest advocates for our current economic policies against Cuba, again invoked Castro's eminent demise and asked for "more time" for our embargo to work when he stated that: "Now that Castro is ill and will soon be gone from the scene is not the time to abandon the U.S. embargo....".
My friends, I would maintain the opposite: now is exactly the time to remove the ill-conceived, U.S. restrictions on trade in foods and medicine.
In May, 1997, along with twenty bi-partisan Colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives, I introduced the Cuban Humanitarian Trade Act (H.R. 1951). Quite simply, my bill would remove current restrictions on food and medical exports to Cuba, and currently has over one hundred cosponsors. A companion bill, with bi-partisan support, has recently been introduced in the U.S. Senate. I am pleased to inform you that both bills are building strong support from across the U.S. Our bills enjoy the support of most organized religious groups, human rights organizations, medical practitioners, and most recently, the formal endorsement of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the International United Automobile Workers Union, AFL-CIO. An effort to build a nationwide Latino consensus in support of HR 1951 was initiated recently. Indeed, the Cuban American community has already voted on this issue. They have voted with their pocket books because they are the source of the largest hard cash infusion into the Island of Cuba, when, mainly in violation of the very laws which their Congressional allies and leaders have enacted and fight to maintain, they pour between $800 and $1.1 billion a year into Cuba. North Americans from different communities with differing views on the embargo itself, are coming together in agreement that the restrictions on food and medical products have gone too far and should be repealed.
The Pope's visit to Cuba focused world attention on the state of affairs in that Island. His Holiness has already spoken out about how U.S. restrictions on food and medicine hurt the people of Cuba.
I would urge my colleague, Chairman Phil Crane, to initiate public hearings on my bill which has been referred to, and sits directly in his Subcommittee. Surely a bill which is building such broad and diverse support deserves public hearings.
Finally, I would like to leave you with some comments on this issue from a truly distinguished American who has recently publicly supported my bill. I will quote to you from General John J. Sheehan (Retired) who was the U.S. Armed Forces Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic and Commander in Chief, Atlantic Command, and as such supervised refugee operations at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The General was at a press conference sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently when he made the following statement:
"I am here today to support the newly formed coalition Americans for Humanitarian Trade with Cuba. For the first time, Americans from different communities, with differing views on the U.S. embargo, come together to support the sale of food and medicine to Cuba. For over thirty-five years, the single most restrictive policy in our history has resulted in increased misery for the people of Cuba and has encouraged Cuban people to migrate to other countries while making no substantive change in the leadership of the Cuban government. All this for a country that does not pose a military threat to the security of the United States.
"Including food and medicine in the current embargo -- the only such embargo existing -- runs counter to our humanitarian tradition. We can no longer support a policy which causes suffering of the most vulnerable -- women, children and the elderly. It is time for us to correct this policy and its unintended effects on the innocent people of Cuba."
My friends and colleagues, a new political wind is sweeping across America. Its force is growing and will soon be felt within the offices, halls and backrooms of the United States Congress. The American people no longer believe that being a causal factor in the poor health and nutrition of the Cuban people is a moral, or effective, response to our political disagreements with their leaders. They are beginning to understand that U.S. restrictions on food and medicine trade with Cuba does not contribute toward building the climate for democracy on that Island. They want a policy towards Cuba which does not isolate them from all of our allies. Cuban Americans deserve a policy towards Cuba which does not punish their loved ones, and which does not sow the seeds of inter-community strife and conflict. Most importantly, it has long been known that the American people believe passionately in fair play, and our current policy restrictions on food and medicine trade with Cuba is not fair to its people, does not achieve its stated goals, and does not reflect the vision and compassion which have long been the hallmark of U.S. foreign policy.
Helms-Burton is an unprecedented effort by one sovereign nation to manipulate and control the political direction and destiny of another sovereign nation. It was born not out of a sense of fair play; it was designed to punish and to vindicate. It permits the current Cuban government to avoid the consequences of its policies by blaming its shortcomings on the "colossus to the North". It may be, ironically, the mechanism which props up the Cuban government and insulates it from accountability to its citizens. It was passed as a direct response to the shooting down of Brothers-to-the-Rescue planes by the Cuban government. It is widely believed that, but for this incident, it would not have passed Congress nor have been signed by the President. It does not represent a high mark in U.S. foreign policy wisdom, and it makes me wonder who's winning and who's losing behind this Helms-Burton. It is a bad bill and it is time for a change.
From the U.S. Congressional Records

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