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Opportunities for Maine Seen in President's Cuba Actions

Mainers who've pushed for ending the United States trade embargo against Cuba are praising President Obama's move to re-establish diplomatic relations with the island nation.

The president's actions will ease some trade and travel restrictions that have been in place since the early 1960's.

The top Republican in Maine's Congressional delegation, meantime, is giving a cautious blessing to parts of the president's decision, while also calling for scrutiny of Cuba's record of human rights abuses and sponsorship of terrorism.

Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins expressed mixed feelings about the shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba, including the granting of full diplomatic relations.

"I don't see how the president can do that when his administration still lists Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism," she says.

Collins says a GOP-controlled Congress is likely to be skeptical of appointing a U.S. ambassador to Cuba, and funding a full diplomatic mission there, unless the Communist nation shows more progress on the terrorism issue, and on its record of human rights abuses.

"I've always felt that the best way to change Cuba was to expose Cubans to a lot of Americans," she says. "And if the trade embargo is eased, it becomes very difficult for Castro to blame our country for his country's economic woes."

The new policy also loosens a range of economic and travel restrictions. General licenses to travel to the island will now be allowed for public performances, athletic competitions, human rights and humanitarian work and activities on behalf of U.S. foundations and institutes.

And private and non-profit organizations, based in America, will now be able to open accounts at Cuban banks.

"Things are moving so rapidly, and American sentiment has shifted so rapidly, in the last 10 years," says
Steve Burke.

Burke is co-founder of the Let Cuba Live Committee of Maine, which has pushed for full normalization of relations since 1994.

"The blockade - it's been condemned all over the world. The United National General Assembly has voted to get rid of the blockade, has condemned it," Burke says.

Under the president's order, U.S. goods that support the development of Cuba's private sector - things like building supplies - will be allowed to be exported to the island.

Congress would need to approve a full lifting of the 54-year trade embargo against Cuba. If that were to happen, former Maine governor and U.S. Congressman John Baldacci says Maine would stand to benefit by selling dairy, potatoes, pulp and paper to the island nation.

In the year 2000, Congress passed a law that allows Cuba to make cash-only purchases of U.S. food and agricultural products. Five years later, while he was governor, Baldacci traveled to Cuba with a delegation of Maine business leaders.

"Just remembering the scene of Fidel Castro, leaning over the table, talking, extemporaneously, almost like it was a theater production, for 45 minutes," Baldacci recalls.

Jay Field: "Was he smoking a Cohiba?"

Gov. Baldacci: "No, he wasn't smoking (laughing). He was actually determined to work out at the gym."

Baldacci says Castro, who ceded power to his brother Raul in 2006, was wearing workout clothes instead of his regular military fatigues, and told the Maine delegation he was exercising because he was determined to outlive the Bush administration.

Before leaving, Baldacci signed a $10 million deal to export seed potatoes, fish and dairy cattle to the island.