American coalition demands an end to trade embargo

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POPE John Paul's impending visit to Cuba has helped to focus the minds of a growing number of influential Americans on what ex-President Jimmy Carter has called "the total stupidity" of US policy towards the impoverished Caribbean island, writes John Carlin in Washington.

A coalition called Americans for Humanitarian Trade with Cuba, enjoying the support of Republican and Democratic members of Congress, leading businessmen and clergy, has proposed ending the US's blockade and resuming partial economic ties with the hemisphere's last Communist regime. The body announced last week in Washington that it would back a bill, recently introduced in the Senate, designed to lift the US embargo on sales of food, medicine and medical equipment.

The ban, it argues, has greatly harmed Cuba's 11 million people while failing to loosen Fidel Castro's grip on power. Some members believe that, in commercial terms, all the US is doing is shooting itself in the foot. Dwayne Andreas, chairman of the giant agribusiness corporation Archer Daniels Midland, said it made no sense for the US to persist with the 36-year-old ban and remain "on the outside looking in" as other Western nations forged ties with Cuba.

In a full-page advertisement in Friday's Wall Street Journal, 25 leading industrial and agricultural companies called on President Bill Clinton and Congress to "seize this opportunity to demonstrate leadership" through engagement with Cuba. More advertisements are due to appear this week, placed by 140 religious and humanitarian organisations.

These cracks in the American establishment's previously monolithic opposition to all contact with Cuba have not yet extended to the White House walls. The Clinton administration continues to support the embargo, even though on Friday it once again blocked action under a 1996 law that imposes reprisals on foreign companies doing business with Cuba. It is possible that the Pope, who means to discuss the return of Church property with Mr Castro, will be denounced by Senator Jesse Helms or some other right-wing diehard.

Pope John Paul is sure to condemn Communism this week, but it remains to be seen whether he will also take a potshot at the US. It will not have escaped his notice that, while Cuba in recent years has been opening the doors to religious worship, China, which enjoys "most-favoured nation" trading status with the US, still routinely jails Catholic priests as a matter of official policy.