Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

POLITICS-CUBA: Helms-Burton Act Bruised but Unbowed

Commentary - Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, May 29 1998 (IPS) - The agreement reached this month between the United States and the European Union (EU) to limit the extraterritorial reach of the Helms-Burton Act on Cuba dealt a blow to multilateral solutions of trade disputes.

But the pact reached Britain has given credence to speculation that Washington is moving toward a relaxation of the embargo imposed against Cuba 36 years ago, according to the Latin American Economic System (SELA).

The May 18 agreement between leaders of the 15 EU member nations and U.S. President Bill Clinton will not lead to a repeal of the 1996 Helms-Burton legislation – which stipulates U.S. sanctions on individuals or companies from other countries that invest in Cuba – or similar laws against doing busainess with Iran and Libya.

Washington, however, will forgo imposing sanctions on European individuals and firms in exchange for the EU’s curbing of technological and military exports to those countries and purchases of property that had been expropriated from U.S. citizens by the regimes in power today.

The first aspect involves mainly Iran and Libya, while the second has to do with Cuba.

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) is the big loser in this deal, says Venezuela’s Manuela Rangel, director of economic relations for the Caracas-based SELA – a regional grouping of 28 countries, including Cuba.

Leading the international outcry against the extraterritorial reach of Helms-Burton, the European Union initially turned to the WTO seeking a ruling that the law violated multilateral trade standards. But it abandoned that route, to reach a direct understanding that failed to overturn the law, although the EU underlined that it would reactivate the complaint filed with the WTO if the agreement was broken.

“This is a harsh blow to the multilateral institutional system because two of the world’s leading economic actors avoided the agreed conflict resolution mechanism to work things out by means of mutual concessions,” said Rangel.

This provided a “bitter and disturbing” signal for the smallest countries, “for whom the enforcement of multilateral mechanisms serves as a dike against the protectionist excesses of the world’s leading powers,” she added.

Cuba thus lost the opportunity to gasin from a ruling against Helms-Burton and President Fidel Castro’s criticism, expressed at the WTO headquarters in Geneva the day after the deal was struck in London, appeared significant in that sense.

But in practice, the US-EU agreement gives a new boost to a host of projects put on hold by cautious investors, say European analysts. Above and beyond its negative aspects, the deal does square with a nascent trend in Washington toward an easing of the embargo against Cuba, which began with Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to the Caribbean island nation in January.

It is worth considering up to what point the Clinton administration will deal with the case of Cuba apart from other blacklisted countries, said Rangel, who added that all signs point to a growing separation of the issues in Washington.

The embargo, stiffened by the Helms-Burton Act, has begun to be openly challenged within the U.S. Congress, according to SELA’s monthly publication ‘Antena.’ For Havana, “it is a very important step” to be left off the U.S. “list of bad guys,” where no distinctions are made between one country and another and it is more difficult to remove obstacles, it added.

The plea by Pope John Paul II against isolating Cuba led Clinton to relax the embargo in humanitarian aspects such as allowing money remittances by emigres and charter flights to the island. The U.S. business community also has stepped up lobbying efforts in favour of a gradual relaxation of the embargo, led by the Chamber of Commerce, which has been forced to stand by and watch as Europeans, Canadians and Latin Americans clinch their business deals in a nation just 90 miles off the U.S. coast.

A previously hushed debate on the embargo came to light this month in Congress. The House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Republican Rep. Philip Crane, dedicated its entire May 7 session to the question of easing the blockade. Only one of the four panels of expert witnesses called by Crane argued for leaving the embargo untouched.

Two initiatives seeking a relaxation of the embargo are currently being debated.

The “Humanitarian Trade with Cuba” bill, which would exempt food and medical supplies from the embargo, was sponsored by Democratic Rep. Esteban Torres and has so far drummed up the support of one-quarter of the members of both houses.

The “Humanitarian Aid for the Women and Children of Cuba” bill was sponsored by Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd, and like Torres’ bill is backed by business associations, human rights groups, the Catholic Church and academicians.

Those sectors can now point to a U.S. Defence Department report released May 6 which argues that Cuba has lost weight as a threat to U.S. security – a classic argument in favour of the embargo.

Although none of the recent efforts nor the deal struck by Washington and the EU are pushing for anything more far-reaching than the easing of the original embargo and the Helms-Burton Act, they do represent growing objections to U.S. policy on Cuba as it now stands. But one significant new element is that “centrist” military and business sectors are now in favour of easing the embargo,

This will lead to anti-Cuba legislators being seen as extremists, pushing them the political centre which always ends up dominating public opinion in the United States. In turn, that will fuel changes with respect to Washington’s attitude toward Havana.

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