WASHINGTON -- The White House succeeded yesterday in FTC splitting the once monolithic bloc of anti-Cuba members of Congress as it detailed relaxed new rules on people-to-people contacts between Americans and Cubans.
Meantime, in a second gesture toward Cuba, the Clinton administration approved a trip to Havana by more than 40 top executives of major American companies, who were to dine last night with President Fidel Castro.
President Clinton issued an executive order Thursday easing restrictions on travel to Cuba by Cuban-Americans, academics, clergy and students, and allowing American news organizations to open bureaus there.
In formally announcing the new steps in a speech yesterday, Mr. Clinton said they were designed to encourage Cuba's "peaceful transition to a free and open society."
On Capitol Hill, reaction among the strongest critics of the Castro dictatorship was mixed, with Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, a North Carolina conservative who has courted Cuban-Americans, offering general support.
"Basically, we're pleased with it," said Marc Thiessen, a spokesman for Mr. Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Mr. Thiessen praised the administration's announced intent to tighten enforcement of the three-decade-old ban on trade between the United States and Cuba, as well as its plan to allow broader contacts between pro-democracy forces in the United States and Cuba.
He also said Mr. Helms supports the idea of allowing American news organizations to open bureaus in Cuba.
"It helps us undermine Castro," the spokesman said.
But Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican who has co-sponsored, with Mr. Helms, legislation to tighten the trade embargo against Cuba, said in a statement: "President Clinton's message today, at the very best, sends mixed signals."
Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, who is wooing Florida's big Cuban-American vote in his Republican presidential campaign, questioned whether Mr. Clinton was "giving a propaganda victory to Fidel Castro" and said the new measures would likely prolong the Castro regime.
Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a fiercely anti-Castro Cuban-American lawmaker from Miami, all but ignored the new administration steps in a statement, focusing instead on the fact that the White House had sanctioned the one-day trip to Havana by U.S. corporate executives.
"There is an abhorrent, unscrupulous, carefully planned strategy" administration officials to use the business community as a means of putting pressure on Congress," he said.
The White House said the Treasury Department had allowed the executives to travel as "free-lance journalists," since they were going as part of a worldwide tour arranged by Time Magazine and would write a report at the end.
But a Time spokesman acknowledged they are only "honorary journalists," and one U.S. official acknowledged: "We weren't comfortable with this at the beginning."
By going as free-lance journalists, the businessmen are allowed to spend money in Cuba without violating the trade embargo.
The trip was the second signal in two days of expanding ties between the Clinton administration and Cuba, one of the world's last Communist strongholds and the only one the United States continues to isolate economically.
It followed White House disclosure of a series of steps to allow increased communication, humanitarian, academic and religious exchanges and modest new commercial ties.
Administration officials insisted yesterday that, far from easing the trade embargo, they would be strengthening enforcement of it at the same time that they ease the travel restrictions.
But some experts on Cuban commerce saw the executives' trip, and the White House stamp of approval, as signs that the United States had embarked on a path to lift the embargo eventually.
"It's unprecedented in terms of numbers, who the individuals are and whom they represent," said John Kavulich, president of the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. The council provides member companies with business and economic information about Cuba.
A Time spokesman, Robert Pondiscio, refused to identify the executives, citing security reasons.
Sources familiar with the trip, however, said the group includes the chief executive officers of a number of Fortune 500 companies, including the Hyatt Hotel chain, Sears, K-Mart, Zenith, Tandy Corp., J.C. Penney, Rockwell, and Travelers Insurance.
Mr. Pondiscio said the executives would likely be on the alert for future business opportunities in Cuba.
Plans for the trip were first reported in yesterday's Miami Herald.
The executives got a high-level send-off yesterday from the White House. They received briefings from Leon Panetta, White House chief of staff, and Deputy National Security Adviser Samuel Berger.