How a small faction dictates Cuba policy Well-heeled interests wield big influence in U.S. foreign affairs

March 02, 1997|By CHARLES LEWIS

For 37 years, the United States had principally one mission with respect to Cuba: deposing its dictator, Fidel Castro.

Over the course of those many years, the U.S. government has tried everything from armed invasion to assassins equipped with poison pens, from exploding seashells to building a broadcast operation that beams news and anti-Castro commentary to the island. And, most important, the United States has implemented a trade embargo aimed at hastening Castro's downfall.

None of these tactics has worked.

After the shootdown on Feb. 12, 1996, of two Cessna aircraft by Cuban fighters, killing four Americans, President Clinton signed the most far-reaching legislation to date in an attempt to drive Castro from power: the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, popularly known as the Helms-Burton act. The Clinton administration initially opposed the legislation because it took the unprecedented step of imposing U.S. law on the subsidiaries of foreign companies.

Under Title III of Helms-Burton, U.S. companies and citizens may sue the U.S. subsidiaries of foreign companies if they are benefiting from the use of property seized during the Cuban revolution. Under Title IV, their executives are labeled "traffickers," a term that's normally applied to drug lords, and are barred from entering the United States.

In reaction to the shootdown, Congress added a measure that incorporated into Helms-Burton all of the presidential directives with respect to Cuba that had been promulgated over the years. In effect, it handcuffed the president in dealing with Cuba.

Already the law has had unintended side effects. Trading partners in Europe, Canada and Latin America have reacted strongly to what they see as U.S. economic imperialism. Canada, members of the European Union, and Mexico have enacted "clawback" laws telling their companies, under threat of fines, not to comply with Helms-Burton and, if U.S. companies begin filing lawsuits, they, in turn, will be sued in Canadian, European or Mexican courts. Our trading partners have called for meetings to discuss the legality of Helms-Burton under the North American Free Trade Agreement and World Trade Organization.

The Clinton administration, most recently at the beginning of January, has used a six-month waiver of the provisions of Title III as a palliative measure in dealing with our allies.

In his January statement, Clinton said: "I would expect to continue suspending the right to file suit so long as America's friends and allies continue their stepped-up efforts to promote a transition to democracy in Cuba."

But nearly four decades after Castro seized power, and despite a near-constant drive by the United States to get rid of him, he is still ruling Cuba and we are straining our alliances to free the hemisphere from its last dictatorship.

How did this happen? Why has the United States taken such a hard line against Cuba in comparison with other countries such as China that also have dictatorial regimes and egregious records on human rights? And why, compared with other issues, has there been so little meaningful debate in the halls of Congress over Cuba policy?

Our study, "Squeeze Play: The United States, Cuba, and the Helms-Burton Act," points to some answers.

Since 1979, we found, individuals and organizations with a direct, identifiable interest or stake in the future of Cuba have poured more than $4.4 million into the U.S. political system. Of that amount, approximately $3.2 million has come from trustees, directors and officers of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), which, since its inception in 1981, has become the most potent voice on U.S. policy toward Cuba.

CANF and its chairman, Jorge Mas Canosa, have created a lobbying force that is, dollar for dollar, arguably the most effective in Washington.

CANF and its allies, the Cuban American Foundation and the Free Cuba PAC, have pushed for - and gotten - three things.

First, the creation of Radio and TV Marti, a $280 million taxpayer-financed program that broadcasts to Cuba, despite serious questions about bias and effectiveness.

Second, passage of the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act, which eliminated U.S. subsidiary trade with Cuba.

And third, in 1996, the passage of Helms-Burton. By any standard, that is a remarkable foreign policy hat trick.

Presidents and presidential candidates from both political parties have made periodic pilgrimages to Miami to court Mas Canosa and others associated with CANF. After the State Department made a change in immigration policy toward Cuba in 1994, then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher called Mas Canosa to inform him personally of the policy change.

There aren't many people in this country who get that kind of personal service from the secretary of state.

Among Mas Canosa's other achievements has been the conversion of Democrat Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey, who served six terms in the House before he was elected to the Senate in November 1996.

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