NEW YORK -- A growing number of American businesses have for the first time begun pressing Washington to reconsider the trade embargo against Cuba, complaining that it forces them to stand by as foreign competitors lock up an attractive emerging market.
A handful of executives have spoken out publicly against the embargo in recent months. But most of the pressure has come in private meetings with administration officials.
The emergence of a fledgling private-sector lobby against the Cuban embargo adds an influential new element to a debate in which economic interests have taken a back seat to political ideology.
So far, Clinton administration officials have responded only by restating long-held positions, as when Alexander F. Watson, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, recently came under questioning on Cuba. "The Europeans and the Asians are knocking on the door in Latin America," Mr. Watson warned. "The game is on and we can compete effectively, but it will be a big mistake if we leave the game to others."
Eric Williams, managing director for Latin American sales for Federal Express, asked, "Do your comments on free trade apply to Cuba?"
"No, no," Mr. Watson said. "That simply can't be, not for now."
Perhaps the most outspoken critic of the embargo among corporate executives has been Dwayne O. Andreas, chairman of Archer Daniels Midland, the giant grain processor in Decatur, Ill.
"Our embargo has been a total failure for 30 years," Mr. Andreas said in a June interview with CNN. "We ought to have all the Americans in Cuba doing all the business they can. It's time for a change."
Jose Cardenas, a spokesman for the Cuban-American National Foundation, the powerful anti-Castro lobby, acknowledged that business interest in Cuba had increased. "There are always a few people who are willing to make a buck -- and the moral ramifications be damned," he said.
Even as executives like Mr. Andreas are urging an end to the embargo, a Republican bill in Congress would tighten it considerably. The bill would, among other measures, punish foreign countries and companies, including subsidiaries of U.S. companies, that trade with Cuba.
The Clinton administration has threatened to veto the bill, partly because of a provision that would allow thousands of Cuban exiles to sue the Cuban government in federal courts to recover properties that have been expropriated since the 1959 revolution. Administration officials said such lawsuits could overwhelm the courts with dubious new litigation.
More than 100 of the American business representatives who have visited Cuba have signed "letters of intent" with state-owned businesses, outlining areas of potential cooperation if trade relations are normalized.