WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration expects a further tightening of the 33-year-old U.S. economic embargo against Cuba as a result of the rightward tilt of the new Republican-led Congress, a top State Department official said yesterday.
"I would expect there would be interest on the Hill in maintaining or strengthening the enforcement of the embargo," said the official, who asked not to be named.
Bills have already been introduced in the new Congress to further hinder the Cuban economy, which has been virtually at a standstill since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the subsequent end to Soviet economic aid.
Bills sponsored by Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican, and Rep. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, would forbid the United States from buying sugar from any country, including Russia, that imports sugar from Cuba, and would ban U.S. entry visas to officials or shareholders in foreign companies that buy or use expropriated U.S. properties in Cuba.
Mr. Torricelli is the author of a 1992 law that tightened the embargo. It punished countries that traded with Cuba by barring their ships from U.S. ports. It also forbade subsidiaries of U.S. companies abroad from trading with Cuba.
Other Diaz-Balart bills would keep Cuba out of international lending agencies like the World Bank or the Inter-American Development Bank, and would deprive the country of loans from those agencies.
The hostility against Cuba appears to be at least as great in the Senate.
But even as U.S. policy toward Cuba seems likely to harden, criticism of the embargo is growing outside of Congress. No other country except Israel supports the U.S. embargo. More Americans are defying travel restrictions and going to Cuba. Campaigns to break the embargo have been organized by such groups as Pastors for Peace and by U.S. scholars on Latin America.
The United States last tightened pressure on Cuba in August, as thousands of refugees streamed across the Straits of Florida. President Clinton imposed travel restrictions on two groups of U.S. citizens previously allowed to visit Cuba unhindered: Cuban-Americans with relatives on the island and U.S. scholars.
The travel restriction was intended to curb the flow of dollars into Cuba -- money, the administration argues, that helps sustain the Castro government.
Those restrictions led to protests by U.S. scholars on Latin America, who have been traveling illegally to Cuba in defiance of the embargo ever since. They argue that it curtails academic freedom.
Yesterday, the State Department official gave more reasons, saying that there have been gross abuses by many of those traveling under the scholar's license: People were visiting more for tourism than research, the official said.
The State Department official said the embargo would be maintained until the Castro government eased its political repression. The release of political prisoners, or a surrender of the government's monopoly on the press, the official said, would be gestures likely to cause the administration to re-examine its policy.
"We do see some economic reforms," said the official, referring to the legalization of dollars in the economy and the opening of private restaurants and a few shops. These liberalizations were a response to a 50 percent decline in the standard of living over the past five years, and a 75 percent to 80 percent decline in imports and exports since the Soviet subsidies ended.
Those reforms began last summer, but were followed in the fall by a political crackdown in which dozens of dissidents were detained.
"So, on one side they are relaxing the economy and on the other tightening up politically," said the official. "Cuba is playing a game it is finding increasingly difficult."
The State Department announced yesterday that the 8,000 Cubans in the U.S.-run refugee camps in Panama would be transferred to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, putting nearly all 32,000 who fled during the summer immigration crisis back in Cuba, though on U.S.-held territory.
Refugees in the Panama camps rioted last month and tried to break out. About 300 U.S. troops were roughed up; seven were hospitalized, along with 24 Cubans. Two Cubans drowned while trying to escape by swimming the Panama Canal.
Because "disturbances are a possibility," according to a State Department spokesman, 1,400 more U.S. troops will be sent to Panama to help with the transfer. Panama had agreed to accept the Cubans for six months, a period that will end March 6.