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International Business : Coalition Will Lobby Washington to End Embargo Against Cuba : Trade: Americans see opportunities being lost to foreign firms. Castro’s rule is the political sticking point.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

From Albania to Vietnam, U.S. companies have been busy establishing operations as communist regimes have died out or embraced capitalist reforms.

Yet, just 90 miles off Florida, Cuba remains virtually sealed off to American business people in the face of a 31-year-old U.S. government trade embargo that is as strong as ever. Meanwhile, foreign companies, from Canadian mining firms to Spanish hoteliers, have set up joint ventures with Fidel Castro’s cash-starved government.

Despite prevailing political sentiments, a coalition of Cuban American, humanitarian and religious groups will lobby Congress and the Clinton Administration today to end or at least ease the embargo, which they regard as a useless relic of the Cold War era.

The 50 organizations participating in National Public Education Day on Cuba say the economic blockade has caused enough hardship on Cuban citizens and does not make sense since embargoes against Vietnam and other communist countries have been scrapped.

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Sandra Levinson, executive director of the New York-based Center for Cuban Studies and a participant in today’s lobbying effort, said the coalition is counting on American business to pressure Congress and the Administration for an end to the embargo.

“A lot is going to depend on how tough business people are going to be with the Administration,” Levinson said. The coalition will push for passage of the Free Trade With Cuba bill introduced in the House last year by Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.). It would eliminate all restrictions on travel to and trade with Cuba.

Defenders of the embargo say it is an important weapon that could ultimately undermine Castro’s grip on Cuba.

In the short run, Cuba appears to be the kind of place most American firms would want to avoid. The average worker earns less than $15 a month and the government has not made a payment on its $6-billion foreign debt since 1986.

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Still, the island nation is the largest single market in the Caribbean. With 11 million consumers, its long-term economic potential could be bright if the government adopted economic and political reforms, analysts say.

If the embargo were to be lifted, U.S. firms could generate $2 billion in sales to Cuba in the first year, according to some Latin American business consultants. Likely areas for American investments include agriculture, tourism, mining, medical care and construction.

“I think U.S. business is taking a hard look at the potential for business and trade with Cuba,” said Arturo Villar, the Cuban-born publisher of Miami-based Latin American Business Reports.

AT&T;, for example, recently sent a team of executives to Havana. The long-distance telephone company is seeking to someday establish direct phone service between Cuba and the United States. Currently, the U.S. government limits AT&T; to a maximum of 300 operator-assisted international calls a day.

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Only about 100 American firms are permitted to conduct business with Cuba on a limited basis. United Airlines last fall began three flights a week from Miami to Havana in cooperation with a charter tour company that sells the tickets.

Would United be interested in expanding service if the embargo ends? “Yes, we would,” said spokesman Joe Hopkins. But many Cuba watchers see little chance of it ending with Castro still in power.

While U.S. firms wait on the sidelines, foreign companies have been entering into ventures with the Cuban government.

“The most lucrative opportunities tend to be taken up earlier,” said Andrew Zimbalist, who studied Cuba as an economist at Smith College. “The Europeans, the Latin Americans, the Asians are getting a jump on us.”

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