Hard-Liners Win `War' over U.S.-Cuba Relations: Helms-Burton Bill Cements Hostility till Castro Passes

By Carter, Tom | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 3, 1996 | Go to article overview

Hard-Liners Win `War' over U.S.-Cuba Relations: Helms-Burton Bill Cements Hostility till Castro Passes


Carter, Tom, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


A heated debate about U.S.-Cuba relations has been waged over the past several years between those who think tougher sanctions are the way to move Cuba toward democracy and those who advocate economic and political engagement.

Those who believe in engagement and dialogue with the Fidel Castro government, derisively called "dialogueros" in anti-Castro Miami, say that people-to-people contact, together with the economic invasion of free-market capitalism, is the best way to erode the dictatorial grip of communism.

Detente worked in the Soviet bloc, they say, and one of the benefits of Western goods and materials entering China and Vietnam has been the corrosive effect of democratic ideals there.

Engagement, not isolationism, would work in Cuba too, they say.

Those on that side of the argument are U.S. allies, including Canada and the European Union. Also in this group are American political liberals, mostly Democrats, some conservative American businessmen and a smattering of Cuban dissidents, both in exile and in Cuba.

The pro-embargo group is dismissed by critics as fanatical right-wing Cuban-American exiles and their stooges, who hold U.S. foreign policy hostage with their powerful lobby in Washington and voting bloc in Florida. Members of this second group say that engagement is simply naive.

They assert that, as refugees from the Castro government, they know Mr. Castro better than anyone, and the only thing a bully understands is a really big stick. In mid-February, the government initiated a harsh crackdown on the democratic opposition coalition Concilio Cubano, an umbrella organization of 130 nonviolent groups, which wanted to meet publicly Feb. 24 - the day Cuba celebrates as the start of the war for independence from Spain.

At least 100 activists were arrested, and a number already have been sentenced to prison terms.

On Feb. 24, when Mr. Castro's MiG-29 fighter shot down two unarmed civilian aircraft in international airspace, killing four, including three Americans, the debate ended in favor of the pro-embargo team.

After suffering years of ridicule from the engagement side of the debate, Rep. Matt Salmon, Arizona Republican, declared in a House hearing Thursday: "We have been vindicated."

The isolation vs. engagement argument will continue, but now only as an academic debate. It will have no significant impact on U.S. foreign policy in the near future.

"What we have seen in the last week is a slap in the face of Canada and the European Union and a searing indictment of the engagement policy," said Marc Thiessen, spokesman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "The idea that Canada or the EU can influence or moderate Castro by engagement is completely and totally bankrupt."

On Wednesday, Congress and the White House reached a bipartisan agreement to pass the toughest sanctions law yet against Cuba. This week, when the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1995 gets President Clinton's signature, Mr. Castro's Cuba will be locked out of the possibility of better relations with the United States.

Also known as the Helms-Burton bill, for sponsors Sen. Jesse Helms, North Carolina Republican, and Rep. Dan Burton, Indiana Republican, the bill attempts to cripple Cuban efforts to attract foreign investment.

According to some reports, just the threat of the bill already has frightened off millions in potential foreign investment in Cuba.

Euromoney magazine's 1995 risk assessment put Cuba in 183rd place out of 187 countries, worse than Somalia. Institutional Investor rated Cuba 127th out of 135, behind Haiti. The new Helms-Burton bill will not do anything to assuage new investor fears on Cuba.

The bill also removes some powers that had been reserved for the president. …

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