HAVANA -- It seemed a most unlikely meeting at the pool-side breakfast tables of Havana's Hotel Nacional.
In the heart of the Cuban capital, which U.S. foreign policy has sought to isolate for nearly four decades, congressional Rep. Barbara Lee of California bumped into Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, a ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee and veteran of Cold War brush fires in Latin America.
The two Democrats were visiting Cuba separately this month, their missions and approaches far different. But their timing was deliberate and their goal identical: to influence a coming debate that Lee calls a "window of opportunity" to fundamentally change U.S. policy toward the Communist-run island.
The framework for the debate is a proposal on President Clinton's desk to create a bipartisan commission to review one of the oldest -- and, critics say, most anachronistic -- U.S. foreign policies. The proposal was signed by three former heads of the State Department and nearly two dozen senators, led by conservative Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican.
Dodd and Lee strongly endorsed the proposed commission during their visits here. And both called for an end to the U.S. government's decades-old strategy toward Cuba of imposed isolation, which they said has failed to erode popular support for Cuban President Fidel Castro and bring down his ruling Communist Party.
"It has been an abysmal failure. It has got to stop," Dodd concluded during a news conference at the end of a five-day visit, which included a six-hour conversation with Castro and meetings with other senior Cuban officials, dissidents, diplomats and ordinary citizens.
"We're less than 400 days from a new millennium," he noted. "This is an opportunity to begin what I would call a new conversation between the United States and Cuba."
Added Lee in an interview with the Los Angeles Times: "It is a policy that has outlived its time."
The two lawmakers said it was in the U.S. interest to change a policy that includes a 34-year economic embargo of Cuba. The embargo bars U.S. companies from competing with the dozens of Canadian and European multinational corporations that have flooded Cuba since Castro opened the doors to foreign investment this decade and created a dollar economy.
But Dodd and Lee, although equally critical of Cuba's record on democratic institutions and human rights, differed in their assessment of how far the United States should go in normalizing relations -- and in their approach to the policy-review process.
Lee, a longtime opponent of the embargo, led a delegation of San Francisco Bay-area officials, educators and doctors to assess the policy's impact on health and education. Lee will urge Clinton to end the embargo, a position she said is gaining support from conservative, free-market Republicans and liberal Democrats.
Dodd, who came here with one staff member, stopped short of calling for an end to the economic blockade. "In the short term, I don't think a lifting of the embargo is likely," he said.
Among the obstacles, most analysts say, are Cuba's relatively low priority as a U.S. policy issue and a strident anti-Castro bloc in Congress that represents the most vocal supporters of the embargo: Cuban exiles in Florida and New Jersey.
In supporting the commission proposal, Dodd urged an end to "a chess game" policy in which successive U.S. administrations have demanded reforms in Cuba before taking steps to ease the embargo.
Dodd said he will encourage Clinton to unilaterally lift U.S. restrictions that prevent free commerce in food and medicine.
Pub Date: 12/13/98