U.S. denies first visas under Cuba sanctions Officers of Canadian mining firm are told they can't visit U.S.

July 11, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration struck for the first time yesterday against foreign companies operating in Cuba, informing the top executives and shareholders of a large Canadian mining concern that they and their families will be barred from entering the United States, State Department officials said.

The action against Sherritt International Corp. was the first application of the Helms-Burton law, which President Clinton, against the advice of many of his closest advisers, signed this year.

It has raised a storm of protest throughout Europe and Latin America, and Canada has told its companies to ignore American threats and warned that it may retaliate with counter-sanctions.

American officials said executives from telephone companies in Mexico and Italy will be informed in coming days that they will also be barred from visiting the United States and from sending their children to visit or study here.

While yesterday's action seemed to represent a hardened line by the administration, behind the scenes the White House is debating whether to bow to the protests abroad by suspending enforcement of a provision of the law that could cost foreign companies hundreds of millions of dollars.

Clinton faces a Monday deadline to decide whether to allow American companies whose properties in Cuba were seized by the government of President Fidel Castro to file suits in U.S. courts against foreign companies that are now using them.

The State Department spokesman, Nicholas Burns, said yesterday that "there is a good deal of discussion about that issue" and that no decision had been made.

The issue is fraught with election-year risks. Clinton signed the GOP-sponsored sanctions bill reluctantly in February after Cuban warplanes shot down two small civilian planes flown by an anti-Castro group based in Florida.

The economic isolation of Castro is an enormously charged issue within the Cuban-American community in Florida, an important state in the November presidential election, and political advisers of Clinton are urging him to take a hard line against companies doing business with Cuba.

But a hard line could also hurt Florida's economy. A coalition of Canadian church, labor and relief groups urged Canadian tourists yesterday to boycott the state unless the United States relents on Helms-Burton. About 2 million Canadians travel to Florida each winter, spending $1.3 billion.

Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin and the chairman of the National Economic Council, Laura D'Andrea Tyson, have made it clear they are worried about retaliation against U.S. companies.

"I have some real concerns about the extraterritorial application of American law," Rubin said in a telephone interview yesterday from Texas, where he was reviewing border controls.

"But you have to balance that with our interests in bringing pressure to bear on countries like Cuba and Iran. Over the next few days, we're going to have to make some decisions."

The Helms-Burton law, named for Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, both Republicans, was intended to drive foreign investors out of Cuba in an attempt to bring down the Castro government, which is already starved of cash.

It requires the administration to bar from entering the United States top executives and major shareholders -- and their families -- of companies found to be "trafficking" in American property confiscated by Castro in 1959, soon after he took power.

Sherritt International operates properties that were seized from the predecessor of what is now Freeport-McMoran, a New Orleans-based mining concern. The Mexican telephone company Grupo Domos and the Italian telecommunications holding company Societa Finanziaria Telefonica Per Azioni, or Stet, use properties that once belonged to ITT Corp.

While banning individuals from the United States is the major symbolic action in the law, the big money rests in the provision that allows American citizens to sue foreigners and foreign companies that "act to manage, lease, possess, use or hold an interest in" property confiscated by the Cuban government from people who are now American citizens. That includes many Cuban-Americans.

Pub Date: 7/11/96

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