Cigarettes may get Helms to like Hanoi Tobacco firm ally joins in building Viet factory

April 02, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

DURHAM, N.C. -- As the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Jesse Helms leaves little doubt how he feels about the Communist leaders of Vietnam.

Nine months after the Clinton administration formally recognized the Vietnamese government, Mr. Helms is still blocking financing for the newly opened American Embassy in Hanoi until the president certifies that there are no obstacles left in the search for possible American prisoners of war or those missing in action.

In a speech last week he denounced Vietnam as one of Asia's "repressive governments," attacking its record on human rights.

So it might seem surprising that on Sunday night Mr. Helms had a convivial, laughter-filled dinner here at the Angus Barn, a popular local steakhouse, with Le Van Bang, Vietnam's ambassador-designate to Washington, along with six other envoys from Southeast Asia.

"He told me we would get along very well," Mr. Bang said, surprised to find himself at Mr. Helms' dinner table. "After all, he is interested in promoting North Carolina."

In fact, Mr. Helms boasts that he intends to use his committee chairmanship to bring the world's most lucrative emerging markets to North Carolina's door.

And the dinner on Sunday night was given by the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., the subsidiary of RJR-Nabisco that has long supported the senator, which has invested $21 million in a joint-venture cigarette factory in Da Nang.

At a moment when tobacco executives are fending off federal grand juries and corporate whistle-blowers armed with embarrassing internal documents, Mr. Helms is doing what he can to make sure that North Carolina tobacco gains opportunities in Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand.

Mr. Bang, who is acutely aware that Senator Helms is Vietnam's chief obstacle in Washington, plays the tobacco card with skill.

Opening a presentation to North Carolina business executives yesterday morning, he looked at Mr. Helms in the front row and said:

"You know, in Vietnam we have a custom now of greeting each other by offering a cigarette."

Pub Date: 4/02/96

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