The House Thursday voted 301-116 to remove sanctions against the sale of food and drugs to Cuba and 232-186 to stop enforcement of restrictions against travel there.
The fate of the bill is uncertain in the Senate. President Clinton has said he favors drug and food sales to Cuba.
But if the bills do become law, says Former Assistant Secretary of State Bernard Aronson, they would combine to mark "a radical departure in U.S. policy toward Cuba."
It could also mean a billion dollars worth of food exports by American farmers to the communist country 90 miles from U.S. soil.
The embargo, imposed at the height of the Cold War in 1963, was intended to make life difficult under Castro, by depriving the Moscow-backed leader and his regime of U.S. dollars.
"There's more of a feeling that the transition is coming and that the U.S. has to fid ways to ease the transition and to make it peaceful," said Aronson.
Indeed, said Delvis Fernandez, of the Cuban-American Alliance Education Fund in San Francisco: "We trade with Vietnam and we trade with North Korea, two countries where we lost close to 100,000 young Americans."
Efforts to move toward more normal relations with Cuba were also bolstered by House approval of the controversial China trade bill.
But many Cuban-Americans in Florida continue fighting to keep the embargo in place. Their political power may have weakened during the fight to keep Elian Gonzalez in the U.S., but they still believe passionately that to trade now would only reward Castro.
"Stand on the side of the Cuban people and against the oppressor of the Cuban people," Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., who represents a heavily Cuban district in the Miami area, told his colleagues during the floor debate preceding the vote.
"Imagine Castro's support for international terrorists if he once again had the cash. Imagine the exports arms industry that he would have developed, the chemical or biological weapons he would have manufactured if only he had the cash," he said.
Other, more powerful foes of freer Cuba trade include House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.
But Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., said Thursday's votes "enhance" the chance that a compromise he reached last month with DeLay and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., would become law.
In that deal, food and medicine sales would be allowed to Cuba, Libya, Iran, Sudan and North Korea.
However, the deal held that Cubans could not pay for the transactions with credit from U.S. banks or the U.S. government. That restriction, which critics have said means few sales to Cuba would take place, is something he might seek to change, Nethercutt said in an interview.
The issue has echoed on the campaign trail. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, opposes lifting sanctions. His likely Democratic rival, Vice President Al Gore, has said he does not want to erode the president's embargo authority but also favors increased contacts with Cubans, though "without helping the Castro government."
Earlier Thursday, lawmakers voted 241-174 to kill a broader proposal by Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., that would have ended enforcement of U.S. prohibitions against virtually all trading with Cuba.
Sales of medicine to Cuba have been allowed since 1992, with some restrictions. Clinton administration easing of travel restrictions last year for students, athletes and artists and others allowed 82,000 Americans to visit Cuba last year, a 47 percent increase over the 55,900 who did so in 1998.
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