Slapping the U.S. Wrist on Cuba

December 01, 1992

The United States can push its standing as the world's sole superpower only so far. Its Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 tries to force the U.S. embargo of Cuba on other countries that won't have it. President-elect Bill Clinton, who promoted it, President Bush, who signed it, and Rep. Robert G. Torricelli, D-N.J., who sponsored it, knew better. They were demagoging for Cuban-American support in Florida. Now the president-elect and the new Congress must deal with the result.

The United Nations General Assembly resolution calling on nations to spurn such legislation was a foreseeable rebuke. Cuban drafting avoided U.S.-bashing. It repudiated, rather, "the promulgation and application by member states of laws and regulations whose extraterritorial effects affect the sovereignty of other States and the legitimate interests of entities or persons under their jurisdiction."

That is why only Israel and Romania joined the U.S. to vote against the resolution; why 79 countries including most U.S. allies abstained; and why 59 nations including our closest partners actually voted to denounce U.S. law.

Britain's Ambassador Thomas Richardson (who abstained) spoke for the European Community in calling the U.S. law "a violation of a general principle of international law and the sovereignty of independent nations." Canada and Mexico voted for the resolution, as a way of saying that their participation in the North American Free Trade Area does not hand their economies over for Washington to brandish as a political stick.

The new U.S. law is meant to encourage democracy in Cuba, which is commendable. The law even has good features, such as improvement in U.S. telephone and mail service to Cuba, and provision for humanitarian aid. But trying to enforce it on foreign subsidiaries of U.S. firms, which Washington tried previously and abandoned in 1975, is something the U.S. would not accept in reverse. Imagine our ire if Saudi Arabia tried to legislate the behavior of U.S. firms, or if Canada did. A silly section of the law bans U.S. ports to ships that have called at Cuban harbors in the previous six months. So, the Cuban disease lasts six months?

President John F. Kennedy imposed the U.S. embargo on March 2, 1961, but only after sending a flunky out to buy 1,200 of his favorite Cuban cigars. The Clinton administration is going to have to review U.S. policy on Cuba, which has not been notably successful in overthrowing Fidel. He can take his time to do so thoughtfully. What should not wait is the arrogance of the 1992 law's extra-territoriality, which the U.N. resolution understandably repudiated. That is a national embarrassment without justification.

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