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President Bush Suspends Helms-Burton Title III

For Immediate Release Tuesday, July 17, 2001

Bush suspends Title III

* President Clinton's most recent six-month waiver of Title III of Helms-Burton expires today...Bush was required to act in order to maintain status quo

* Tightening of anti-Castro restrictions last Friday and officially nominating hardliner Otto Reich, the day before, were indications that Bush would issue a waiver on Title III but not turn to a policy of constructive engagement. Bush is now set to continue the sterile policy of all of his modern predecessors

* With no signs of decline in the Castro regime, and with the 40-year-old embargo proving to be an abject failure, continued suspension of Title III will pacify protests which would have come from business leaders in the U.S, the EU, Canada, Latin America and elsewhere over charges of illegality and extraterritoriality

* Where is the illustrious Colin Powell?

President Bush has waived the application of Title III of Helms-Burton, continuing the longstanding policy of the Clinton Administration, which suspended it ten times before, rather than allowing the extremely controversial provision to automatically kick in. Title III allows Cuban-Americans and other U.S. claimants to sue current property owners or lease-holders of any private property seized by Cuban authorities since the onset of Castro's rule in 1959. Along with its decision on Title III, the White House would be wise to reevaluate its 40-year-old economic embargo that has been at the core of U.S. policy toward the island nation since Castro first announced the Marxist character of his revolution in 1962. A policy of isolation was then devised by Washington to precipitate the fall of the new leftist regime. At the height of the Cold War, Cuba was seen by successive U.S. administrations as a serious threat to this country's security interests. Championed by Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) a self-styled gladiator against Castro's continued survival, Helms-Burton (and especially Title III), enacted years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was denounced at the time by its legion of critics as being wrong from humanitarian, legal, political and economic standpoints. There is little disagreement that the embargo has failed to achieve its intended goals. It has been successful only in generating suffering among average Cubans, and is being denounced worldwide on the grounds of basic decency. As President Clinton acknowledged, "the U.S. stands alone" in its Cuba policy, with the EU, Canada and business leaders strongly opposing the anti-Cuba sanctions.

Traditionally, American presidents have been strikingly ill-informed about Latin America, usually not even knowing the capitals of a majority of the countries in the region. Of course, rhetorically, they are prepared to do anything for the area except read a book on the subject or reflect on its profound social problems and the endemic obstacles to effective governance. Moreover, there is a good reason to believe that President Bush is all but illiterate on the subject and that he is being jockeyed into a position by those on the far right of the Republican party to appoint a series of candidates who will further isolate him from the mainstream of current Latin American realities. Refusing to renew the Title III waiver could have triggered a sequence of events which eventually could have cost the U.S. a successfully-negotiated hemispheric free trade zone (FTAA) as well as having contributed to mobilizing an aroused public opinion throughout Latin America. For sentimentality if nothing else, in any contest over their respected popularity between Washington vs. Havana, the region's citizens might just as well choose Castro over the latest gringo bully, Bush.

The Bush crack-down The U.S. President already has made clear his attitude towards U.S.-Cuba relations by announcing a few days ago a new round of anti-Havana measures, which all but predicted that the Title III waiver would be maintained. Meanwhile, the Secretary of State barely has been heard from regarding Latin American policymaking. The fact that he signed off on the Otto Reich and Roger Noriega nominations is shocking. The big question is whether the ideological-driven regional policymaking, which is now being witnessed, is what Colin Powell wants to be identified with if Bush aggressively implements his new policy. This includes cracking down on unlicensed travel by "enforcing the law to the fullest extent to prevent unlicensed and extensive travel to Cuba" by U.S. nationals. Will the Secretary of State also feel comfortable with the Bush initiative of funding opposition groups on the island, in effect, creating a quisling presence tainted by its leaders receiving foreign funding? Moreover, to the apprehension of many area experts, it is now disturbingly clear that the Bush White House, with Powell's apparent acquiescence, is lurching far more to the right in staffing hemispheric-related offices than was the case when his father was president. This is reflected in the appointment of an extremist policy-making triumvirate made up by radical right-wingers like Iran-Contra perjurer Elliot Abrams to the National Security Council, his contra comrade-in-arms Otto Reich to be Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America, and Senator Jesse Helms' protégé, Roger Noriega, to be the ambassador to the OAS. Added to this cluster of ultra-conservative nominations is the name of John Negroponte, who served a highly tainted ambassadorship to Honduras in the 1980s. He has been named to head the U.S. delegation to the UN. Also, Bush's brother, Jeb, hoping to be reelected as governor of Florida, is now strengthening his links to conservative Miami Cubans, headed by the Cuban-American National Foundation. This U.S. group played the principal role in last year's Elián González demonstrations and single-mindedly promotes aimless hyper-hostility toward Cuba.

A policy motivated by blind rage In the early 1960s, the U.S. designed a "Two-Track Policy" aimed principally at guaranteeing both economic denial aimed at asphyxiating Cuba's economy and its political isolation. But Washington was also prepared to occasionally make very limited gestures of functional cooperation on issues of mutual concern, be it trade, navigation or immigration. The embargo, established to eliminate the new regime's political and economic options, serves as Washington's main foreign policy vehicle towards Cuba in providing consistency to its negativity. However, U.S.-Cuba policy increasingly has been transformed into only a "One-Track Policy" constituted by a series of radical measures explained best by being tied to domestic policy concerns, including the status of Florida's electoral votes, than by diplomacy.

Clinton gives away the store The catalyzing event behind President Clinton's unexpected approval of Helms-Burton occurred when a Cuban fighter jet shot down two civilian planes flown by members of the Cuban-American group, "Brothers to the Rescue." Castro claimed (although this was contradicted by an investigation led by an international airline industry panel) that the planes were flying over Cuban national waters. The group, which performed more than just humanitarian missions, was known for its repeated violations of Cuban airspace when it would drop anti-Castro leaflets denouncing the regime. In spite of repeated warnings by Cuban authorities to the State Department and their frequent demarches objecting to these violations of sovereignty, as well as threats of possible dangerous consequences that could follow, the incident provided Cuban-American hardliners with the necessary provocation to press for harsher sanctions against Cuba. As a result, the White House, which was previously inclined to veto Helms-Burton, given that it would offend Washington's overseas allies because of its extraterritorial reach, now reversed itself, with President Clinton signing the measure on March 12, 1996. Of immense importance, the final version of Helms-Burton also included a provision making the lifting of the embargo no longer a matter of only presidential discretion, but now required a congressional majority.

The U.S. stands alone When Clinton again waived Title III last July, a State Department fact sheet declared: "The President certified that a suspension is necessary to the national interest and will expedite a transition to democracy in Cuba... He did so in order to work with our friends and allies to develop a multilateral approach to advance democracy, human rights, and fundamental freedoms in Cuba." No other country, except Israel, supports the embargo, and even Israel trades with Cuba. For Washington's European allies, Title III is an abomination and a violation of international law. The EU went so far as to challenge its extraterritorial application before the World Trade Organization, insisting that it violates that body's rules. Spain will be the most affected if Title III is enforced. One Cuban-American has already drafted dozens of accusations against the Cuban holdings of the Spanish hotel chain Sol Meliá, and would have sued if Title III had been untethered. The White House was also well aware that if Bush had not emulated Clinton by waiving Title III, he could have anticipated unremitting recriminations from the EU, Canada and Latin America. He also was mindful of the fact that a key funding source for his political campaign funds, America's major corporations, were against Helms-Burton.

A case without much evidence Havana's supposed security threat against the U.S. can no longer be the cornerstone upon which Washington legitimates its irrational gonzo policy towards the island. Teodoro Petkoff, a distinguished Venezuelan journalist, argued at a recent Washington conference: "Any officer with common sense in the State Department knows that Cuba is inoffensive. Fidel Castro is a Mickey Mouse; someone that you want to take a picture with, nothing more." The Cuban Revolution lives on in part due to the protracted U.S. embargo, to which Castro attributes many of his regime's failings.

Title III states that it will "bring democratic institutions to Cuba through the pressure of a general economic embargo." Unfortunately, this language turns out to be a colossal bluff that depends upon an entirely unverified hypothesis. If anything, the overwhelming consensus is that the democratization of Cuba will not be achieved through isolation, but only through integration. Far more relevant for authentic U.S. national interests and much more likely to be approved by the U.S. public, is the pending "Bridges to the Cuban People Act", sponsored by Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Lincoln Chafee (R-RI). This measure would authorize the unrestricted sale of food, medicine and child-related products to Cuba, remove travel restrictions on U.S. citizens and award scholarships for islanders to study here. A humane and dignified outreach policy would saturate Cuba with pluralistic values and spawn a full spectrum of political opposition (in contrast to Senators Helms and Lieberman's new pandering initiative to fund a paid Cuban opposition), with the former vice-presidential candidate always finding it difficult to resist the lure of Florida's electoral votes and Miami's campaign donations.

Popular opinion, often in the most unlikely of places, is convinced that the increasingly vermiculated embargo is redundant. One poll indicates that 63.3 percent of all Americans and 54.1 percent of Florida Hispanics support lifting the embargo, signifying fast changing times. The Elián González case established that extremist efforts to convince the public of the Castro menace are being increasingly discounted. As for the embargo, it has been successful only in generating poor diets among island school children and making medical supplies scarce (Cuban physicians have access to only 50 percent of the new medicines available internationally). While island residents are the true victims of U.S. policies, the aging government shows few signs of decline.

Moreover, the Cuban government has expressed a willingness on a number of occasions to discuss and resolve compensation differences involving expropriated property with the U.S. and its claimants. Every other country that lodged claims against Cuba has settled, but the White House, with far more pressing items on its policy agenda than settling a dispute involving relatively small numbers, has no particular desire to really resolve the conflict and deflate an issue. To Castro's experienced ears, the U.S. repeatedly has stated that once the Cuban leader meets certain pre-conditions, the embargo will be terminated. But this game plan often has turned out to be an empty promise. In the past, the U.S. had pledged to improve relations if Cuba withdrew help from Africa, stopped intervening in Central America and reduced military relations with the USSR. In every case, the promise was not kept and the goal post had its location shifted. This was because from Washington's perspective, the dispute had to be irreconcilable.

Making everyone happy, except Cuba By again waiving Title III, Bush felt his way to find a balance between two contending forces- almost the entirety of U.S. civil society along with U.S.-based multinationals concerned over being allowed to compete in the Cuban market, on one side, and an increasingly tiny minority of conservative Cuban-Americans on the other. The decision was inevitably accompanied by additional measures that were meant to more than compensate for the political damage inflicted on the interests of rightwing Cuban-Americans, who are unyielding in their insistence that the embargo not be eased. In fact, the President's Friday announcement ordering stricter enforcement of the embargo, may be only a first step in this unproductive direction.

Among the additional countermeasures that the administration may announce in the next few weeks is the enforcement of Title IV, which allows for the denial of travel visas to the U.S. for officials of foreign corporations "trafficking" in Cuban assets in violation of Title III. Other options include imposing harsher regulations on the legal sale of food and medicine to Cuba, taking a personal role in pressing Congress to hasten confirmation of the controversial nominations of Otto Reich as the top diplomat for Latin America, as well as Roger Noriega as the ambassador to the OAS, and pursuing criminal proceedings against those responsible for the shoot-down of the Brothers to the Rescue aircraft. Bush might even push for expedited hearings to be held on the Helms-Lieberman Bill in the Senate, which would grant $100 million to Cuban dissidents over a period of four years.

More imperative and more difficult for the Bush administration, however, is to create a coherent policy towards Cuba that could cast the President in the unlikely role of innovator, in the manner of Nixon in China. This may entirely be wishful thinking, given his recent action in ordering a clamp down on travel to Cuba and other new restrictions. By continuing to waive Title III, Washington has undertaken an essential first step towards ending an increasingly hollow and reactive Cuba policy that has aimlessly staggered since the Kennedy administration.

COHA Research Group, Ana Maria Mini lead researcher.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-partisan and tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the floor of the Senate as being "one of the nation's most respected body of scholars and policy makers."

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