July 11:Charles Krause gives a background report on the events that led to the signing of the Helms-Burton legislation.
July 11:The Canadian Minsiter of International Trade debates with Florida Rep. Ileana Res-Lehtinen (R) on Cuban sanctions and the Helms-Burton legislation.
March 5, 1996: Warren Christopher discusses the reasoning behind signing the Helms-Burton legislation.
March 4, 1996: Report on the reaction of Florida Cuban community to the shooting down of the "Brothers to the Rescue" plane by the Cuban airforce.
March 1, 1996:Two experts discuss the change in the Clinton administrations policy toward Cuba.
Feb. 26, 1996: The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations discusses the shooting down by Cuba of an American civilian plane and President Clinton's signing of the Helms-Burton legislation.
Browse past Online NewsHour forums
Is the Helms-Burton legislation a reasonable response to a despotic Communist dictatorship, or a misplaced effort to displace the Cuban regime of Fidel Castro that infringes on the foreign policies of Americaís allies?
The bill is an Act of Congress introduced by Sen. Jesse Helms (R, NC) and Rep. Dan Burton (D, IN) that formalizes U.S. sanctions against Cuba. Amongst its provisions include the right to deny U.S. visas to executives, majority shareholders and their families of companies that have invested in property that had belonged to U.S. companies prior to the Communist revolution. This has already been used against the Canadian mining company Sherritt International. And on July 16 President Clinton passed, and then postponed for six months, another provision of the act that would allow American companies and individuals to sue in U.S. courts foreign companies benefiting from confiscated American property in Cuba.
Countries angered by the legislation include major Cuban investors Canada, Mexico, France and Britain. They argue that they were not consulted about the contents of the legislation and that it effectively tries to control their foreign policies and their companies. The European Union vows to fight Helms-Burton at the World Trade Organization, Canada and Mexico through NAFTA. By extension, these countries argue that engagement, not sanctions, is the best way to reform the Cuban government.
Supporters of the bill say that those investing in Cuba today are propping up a decrepit and corrupt regime while exploiting the Cuban worker. For instance, reports say that Sherritt International pays the Cuban government $9,500 a year per worker and the worker earns only $10 a month. Furthermore, say supporters, Helms-Burton doesnít stop investment in Cuba, it only stops those investors from doing business in the U.S.
Our Forum asked: Has America taken the right path in its efforts to defeat the Castro regime or has it overstepped its boundaries in the international community? What is the best way to deal with the Communist regime in Cuba? Is this issue merely election fodder that will blow over after America votes in November?
Your questions are answered below by two experts on the issue. Jack Payton is Diplomatic Editor for Floridaís St. Petersburg Times and a long time chronicler of international affairs. Drew Fagan has been a Washington Correspondent for Torontoís Globe & Mail since 1993 and has been covering the Helms-Burton story for that paper.
Dave Cooper of Tortola, British Virgin Islands asks:
I recently spent 5 weeks in Cuba. We were invited by the Cuban Government to explore the possibilities of crewed charter yacts in Cuba. This is a business that is well established here and very profitable to the host country.
Our observations were that Cuba was moving to a much more "socialist-capatilistic" society at that time (June 95). Since the passage of the Helms-Burton act the Cubans have moved much closer to the nationalist side of the coin. Won't this act simply work to bolster the worst aspects Castro's regime? Have Helms, Burton et al considered this?
Jack Payton of the St. Petersburg Times replies:
It just might do that. In the past, when Washington has turned up the pressure on Cuba Castro has responded by increasing repression or threatening the United States with a wave of illegal immigration similar to the Mariel exodus or the boat exodus of two years ago. If Castro reacts in a similar way this time, Washington will once again have caused the situation to deteriorate.
Drew Fagan of the Toronto Globe & Mail replies:
The view of most Western Countries, with the exception of the United States, is that limited free-market reforms instituted by Fidel Castro should be encouraged. The prominent presence of the international companies on Cuban soil is aimed, in the eyes of Canada and European nations, at giving Cuban citizens good reason to question further central planning in from Havana.
Castro has used the passage of Helms-Burton to try and rally Cubans behind his regime. But he has also continued to sporadically open new segments of the economy to private investment. Jesse Helms and Dan Burton, however, reject the very idea that Castro could implement significant reform; and there are indeed, real questions about whether Western investors treat Cuban workers fairly.
Ian MacDougall of Mississauga, Ontario asks:
This legislation seems to be based on the idea that the U.S. should be a global policeman, bringing aggressive nations to heel. How can the Administration and Congress justify this, given the rather suspect history of American foreign policy, such as support of Saddam Hussein?
Jack Payton replies:
I don't think this has anything to do with Washington assuming the role of global policeman. In fact, the two sponsors of Helms-Burton are very much against this idea. What this does have to do with is the fact that 1996 is an election year and both the Republicans and the White House know there are some votes to be had by trying to look tougher on Communism than the other guys.
Drew Fagan replies:
The drafters of the Helms-Burton law argue it is an attempt to bring freedom and democracy to a country where the citizens have neither. But U.S. foreign policy is inconsistent. Washington tries to influence China, for example, not by using a big stick approach but by engaging with Beijing authorities, just as other Western countries are attempting to do with Cuba.
As such, countries like Canada resent U.S. attempts to lean on their foreign policy initiatives towards Cuba. But Washington contends that it is doing no such thing. It is not demanding that Western countries institute an embargo of Cuba; only that foreign companies investing in Cuba not invest in property previously expropriated from U.S. interests.
Gwyn Graham of San Jose, Costa Rica asks:
The hypocracy in this bill makes its agenda clear to all and the blinkered approach in which it is being handled is threatening the evolution of free(er) trade. The U.S. has clearly not considered the implications in terms of retaliatory measures in the form of visa restrictions and freedom of travel that this may have on U.S. citizens overseas or maybe just doesn't care. What forms of retaliation do you foresee happening if the U.S. continues on this course?
Jack Payton replies:
The White House is indeed aware of the diplomatic implications of this bill. That's why President Clinton went along with it only after the Cuban Air Force shot down two Brothers-To-The-Rescue planes. When that happened, the issue became a political litmus test for anti-Castro Cuban-Americans in south Florida and New Jersey. The possibility of retaliation is also behind Clinton's decision to delay implementation of the most serious part of the bill for six months -- until well after the U.S. elections in November. That way Clinton hopes to have it both ways -- to still have a chance of winning the Cuban-American votes in November, and to avoid international retaliation from countries such as Britain and Canada. The withholding of U.S. entry visas (so far applied only to the executives of one Canadian company) may not, by itself trigger retaliation unless it's applied more widely. At least that's the hope of officials at the White House.
Drew Fagan replies:
The European Union has threatened retaliation, including possible sanctions against U.S. companies that sue European corporations operating in Cuba. Visa restrictions may also be applied against U.S. business people if Europeans with Cuban connections are blocked from entering the United States. Canada has promised similar action, and is coordinating with Mexico a NAFTA challenge of Helms-Burton.
The Clinton Administration anticipated such retaliation when the bill was being drafted last year, and cited this possibility as a key reason why the White House then opposed the proposed law. But administration officials have said the president had little choice but to sign the law in March, since Congressional anger over the downing of two civilian U.S. aircraft off Cubaís coast would have made inevitable a congressional over-ride of a Clinton veto of the bill.
Jim Sheridan of New York, NY:
What is Jesse Helms' history with regards to his policy towards Cuba? Why does he choose to focus so much of his attention on this foreign policy issue?
Jack Payton replies:
Helms is first and foremost an anti-Communist. As such he's been fixated on Castro for years, almost as if it's a personal vendetta. Castro has had this effect on many American politicians. Keep in mind that Castro is one of the few foreign leaders (at least as far as we know) that the United States has actually tried to assassinate. I'm thinking here of the CIA operations of the early 1960s that included such bizarre plots as sending the Cuban leader lethal exploding cigars and spiking the contents of his SCUBA diving tanks with a chemical that was supposed to make his beard fall out (what that was supposed to accomplish I have no idea). The point is that Castro has a history of making people like Helms see red.
Drew Fagan replies:
Jesse Helms has a consistent policy of hard-line opposition to Communist regimes. He does not believe they are capable of reform, and he does not believe that Castro has changed his stripes in any fashion. Furthermore, conservative members of the Cuban-American community who feel as he does about Castro are major political supporters of Helms. Taking an unbending stance against Castro is good politics for Helms, and also appears, in his view, to be a righteous battle against tyranny.
Dominic DeWolf of Laguna, CA asks:
Is Helms-Burton strictly an election year/political document or does it contain some serious policy underpinnings?
Jack Payton replies:
My own opinion is that Helms-Burton is 99 percent election year politics, for the Republicans as well as Democrats. There's a kernel of seriousness about private property rights and the ability to use the courts to protect them, but the main thrust is political.
Drew Fagan replies:
Helms-Burton is a serious policy statement with election year underpinnings. Among other things, it codifies the U.S. embargo of Cuba. Any significant easing of the embargo now requires Congressional approval. In the past, the White House could act on its own.
The law was also drafted, however, in a manner aimed at embarrassing Mr. Clinton politically. He was faced this week with having to choose between angering key U.S. allies and angering a key U.S. voting block. He found a way to try to split the difference. It remains unclear whether he was successful.
Pat Johnson of Springfield, MA asks:
Given that property rights is a paramount principle associated with capitalism, is it not only correct and accurate according to the U.S. Constitution and the deeply held values of this nation, that the undue taking of property without just compensation be a punishable offense via legislative action by the U.S. Congress? Although this may be counter to free trade principles,does the property rights argument outweigh the free trade principle when the legislature performs a delicate balancing act such as this?
Jack Payton replies (Drew Fagan submitted his answers prior to the arrival of this question and was unavailable to answer) :
This argument might have a lot more weight if the U.S. government had been applying it consistently to U.S.-owned properties confiscated in all foreign countries. From what I've seen, Cuba is the only country where this kind of action is being taken. If Helms-Burton was really about protecting property rights, it would be look very different than it does, i.e., designed to impress Cuban-American voters in Florida and New Jersey.
There's also the point that the action called for by Helms-Burton amounts to a secondary boycott, also illegal under the usual application of U.S. law.
Alex Cobb of Toronto, Ontario
Does Japan have the right to impose sanctions against the U.S. and anyone who trades with her, by virtue of the fact that America stole property from Japanese-Americans and Japanese citizens living in America during WWII?
Whom is this display of force majeure supposed to help?
Sean Ingram of Bethesda, MD
It is my belief that the United States Government has overstepped its bounds in the case of its attempts to force its allies to comply with its embargo of Cuba. The argument made by Canada in particular, is that engagement rather than isolation is what will work best in order to reform the totalitarian system which exists in Cuba. This policy is based the experience gained through the end of the Cold War, which saw the Communist regimes in the countries of Eastern Europe fall because their leaders could not supply them with what they saw in the West, through the exchange of ideas, people and yes, trade. This policy of engagement is also the argument used by this self-same administration to explain its policy towards China, a country most would agree has a much worse human rights record than Castro's Cuba.
Helms-Burton will do nothing to dissuade major investors in Cuba, and might, as has been suggested in an article in the Washington Post in March, actually open a back door to allow some American companies to get around the American trading embargo. By settling out of court for a share in the profits of any venture between a foreign company and Cuba, American companies who might be tempted to file suit in court, will instead become investors in Cuba.
Helms-Burton, I believe, also makes the requirement that in order to have the right to file suit against a 'trafficker' in expropriated American property, that property had to have a value of $50 000 USD in 1957 (the year of the revolution). Very few of the Cubans who came out of Cuba at that time had assets that valuable, and those that did were almost certainly connected to the Batista regime, itself a dictatorship, propped up with American money and with a human rights record comparable to Castro's.
The Cuban people have suffered for a long time, longer than just Castro's period in power. There were signs, before the shootdown and its guarantee of enacting the Helms-Burton legislation, that Castro was moving towards liberalization, economic if not political, and in fact there was hope that the Clinton administration would end the embargo and attempt a policy of engagement as its allies had urged it to do. The truly great harm that Helms-Burton does, is that prior to its enactment, the embargo against Cuba had been enacted by Executive Order and could be ended by the President without having to pass legislation through Congress in order to do so.
Helms-Burton has now codified the embargo and made it practically impossible for there to be any change in Cuba policy while Castro lives. It is extraordinarily unfortunate that this legislation was enacted since it will never accomplish what it sets out to do, end the Castro dictatorship. It is legislation driven by domestic concerns (Jesse Helms' local sugar interests in North Carolina, the voting power of Cuban-Americans in Florida and New Jersey) and the only thing it will accomplish is to strain relations amongst America and its staunchest allies, violate the NAFTA and prompt retaliatory legislation in Canada, Mexico and the EU. America gives itself a black-eye in the international community by trying to drag its unwilling partners in its wake.
Robert I. Mishell of Berkeley, CA
We should normalize relations with Cuba as we have with Viet Nam. The Miami Cuban community does not prepare a fair view of Cuba. Many of them were supporters of Batista and many have engaged in serious criminal activities, including the overflights of Havana that preceded the wrongful deaths by the Cuban government of the subsequent flight outside of Cuban airspace.
We never took action in Argentina "the dirty war", the Pinochet dictatorship, the murderers of archbisops and nuns in ElSalvador, or the continuing undemocratic and murderous regime in Guatemala. Certainly some of Castro's actions may be deplorable but our sanctions which destroy children are far worse.
Much of the current ado about Castro has to do with expropriated property but we hear little about Cuban offers for compensation. Even on the Newshour we don't hear about the Cuban accomplishments in health care, literacy and education. Would we like to make the comparison with the way the Mayan people have been treated by the government we established with our overthrow of Arbenz (Guatemala) in the 50's? Let Cuba breath, Castro like Clinton and Helms won't live forever.
Gerald Allen Green of Los Angeles, CA
I very much deplore the stance that my country has taken with respect to attempting to influence the actions of other nation vis-a-vis Cuba. From Senator Helms, this action is predictable, although I have not been aware in the past that his positions were so much influenced by the Florida anti-Castro lobby led by Mas Canosa.
It is clear to me that Castro is an aging leader, albeit widely respected by his people. The world-wide failure of communism has left poor old Fidel very much out on a limb; Castro is defeated, and Helms gets no credit for his defeat. But we should be positioning ourselves to influence the future democratic development of Cuba, instead of continuing to earn the undying hatred of Cubans - much as we did in the old days of dictatorship.
Ted Peebles of Richmond, VA
My question has to do with Helms/Burton and the embargo policy in general, which has contributed to strengthening Castro's position by providing his regime with the threat that legitimizes his oppression. My question: why have journalists in the U.S. failed to press Dole, Clinton and others on their contradictory support of a policy of "constructive engagement" trade regarding the People's Republic of China, while maintaining that human rights abuses in Cuba prohibit us from engaging in trade with that nation. Is China's political repression lighter than that of Cuba? Have they shown themselves to be less likely to play by the rules of international trade than the Chinese have (especially with regards to intellectual property issues, etc.)? Why is this apparent contradiction (almost) never addressed by the press? Thanks for considering these questions.
(sorry I'm sending this after your 1 p.m. deadline; hope you will consider it anyway)
Ray Kaduck of Ottawa, Ontario
The Helms-Burton legislation is an insult to the strongest U.S. allies. The excuse that it is a necessary part of U.S. domestic politics is unacceptable. The U.S. has talked for the last 50 years about free trade and international institutions. It has talked about the rule of law. When it comes to talking the talk, the U.S. is fine, but walking the walk is another thing.
In the Cold War, the U.S. always managed to excuse this sort of behaviour by pointing to the Soviet threat. That excuse is lame, nowadays. What it has meant in past is that the U.S. was excused from acting the way it wished other countries to act. Now it must choose whether it wants to be viewed as a leader through example, or a bully which uses self-serving rhetoric to impose its electoral problems on the rest of the world instead of dealing with substantive issues.
Donald L. McIlwraith of Guelph, Ontario
I have always found it difficult to understand the overwhelming concern the public of the United States has about whether or not people of other nationalities are communist or not! Has Castro improved the condition of the majority of Cuba's population? Did the United States have the opportunity to take Cuba under it's wing, or did a corrupt system want to maintain it's hold on Cuba simply to line the pockets of the already wealthy? Did The United States pay reparations to Britian after War of Independence, or Mexico after the Spanish American War? Are there any American companies doing business with any countries who have not paid reparations after wars anywhere in the