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Last Updated:5/22/03

The U.S.-Cuba Imbroglio

Anatomy of a Crisis

By Wayne S. Smith

What is it about Cuba that causes American leaders to react so irrationally? The Cuban shootdown of two small planes of U.S. registry in the Florida straits on February 24, 1996, was indeed deplorable. Whatever Castro's calculations in ordering it, it almost certainly violated international conventions and could only be seen by the international community as a gross overreaction, resulting in the loss of four human lives. A strong response from the United States was necessary; appropriate lines of action were available. But the U.S. response, when it came, did more damage to the United States than to Cuba and diverted the ire of the international community from Cuba to the United States. The Helms- Burton legislation, passed as a result of the shootdown, supposedly aims at tightening the embargo, but in fact is likely to cause the United States serious problems internationally, while affecting the Cuban economy little if at all. It also weakens the presidency and closes the door to any possibility of effective diplomacy toward our island neighbor. How did this come to pass and what are the implications for the future?

Background to the February 24 Tragedy

In a press conference the next day, Secretary of State Warren Christopher condemned the shootdown as a blatant violation of the Chicago Convention on International Airways, which stipulates that civil aircraft are not to be attacked, even in the airspace of another country; rather, after appropriate warnings, they are to be forced down or escorted back to international airspace. But in this case, Christopher said, the United States was certain the planes had been in international airspace at the time they were shot down. The United States was therefore calling a special session of the United Nations Security Council and would urge that Cuba be condemned and international sanctions be levied against it.

Nothing was said by Christopher, or by other administration spokespersons, about previous penetrations of Cuban airspace by the same exile group, Brothers to the Rescue, whose planes were shot down on February 24. Nor was there any acknowledgment that perhaps those planes had been in Cuban airspace prior to their shootdown. Rather, the impression given was that they had been on a humanitarian mission, that the Cuban action had come without warning and been entirely unprovoked.

Well, not quite. First of all, in its own briefing to the press on February 25, the U.S. intelligence community indicated that at least one of the planes and possibly all three had been in Cuban airspace. The lead plane, piloted by Jose Basulto, the leader of Brothers to the Rescue, was still in it at the time of the shootdown. The two planes brought down, however, according to intelligence, were over international waters when they were hit. (The Cuban government, on the other hand, has vehemently insisted that they were in its airspace and that it has the wreckage to prove it.) Further, Havana tower had warned the planes that they were entering a dangerous area and should turn back. Basulto's reply was that they knew they were in a dangerous zone, but would continue anyway.

Second, Brothers to the Rescue had a long history of goading Cuban authorities with their overflights. For a time after their founding in 1991, they stuck to their humanitarian mission: patrolling the Straits of Florida looking for rafters trying to reach the American coast. But by 1994, the group was consistently penetrating Cuban airspace and on several occasions overflew the island dropping propaganda leaflets. Havana complained to Washington of these overflights and insisted that it take all necessary measures to prevent them. Then, on January 9 and again on January 13 of 1996, planes of Brothers to the Rescue overflew downtown Havana at low altitude dropping leaflets calling on the Cuban people to oppose the Castro regime. Furious, the Cuban government issued a statement saying its patience was exhausted and that any further violations of Cuban airspace would meet with a shootdown. In a diplomatic note dated January 15, it again warned the U.S. government to put a stop to these violations.

What measures had the United States taken over a two- year period to curb these repeated penetrations? And what measures did it take in response to the Cuban warning of January 15? None at all. Although the same Chicago convention cited by Secretary Christopher stipulates that each country must prevent the planes of its registry from violating its neighbors' airspace, the United States made no effort to do so. Even though Brothers to the Rescue had consistently filed false flight plans and in other ways violated U.S. laws and regulations, no pilots licenses were rescinded, no planes were grounded, nothing at all was done. An investigation of Basulto had begun after an earlier overflight, but no progress had been made toward canceling his license as of the time he took to the air again on February 24. Indeed, even now, it has not been rescinded. After the tragedy, however, President Clinton did take what could be construed as effective action to halt the illegal flights: he authorized the Federal Aviation Agency to remove the licenses of any pilots suspected of penetrating Cuban airspace pending investigation. Had he taken that step a few months or even weeks earlier, the tragedy might have been avoided. As it was, the president's expost- facto order is prima facie evidence that effective measures were available; the administration simply did not choose to take them.

Its failure to act excited Cuban suspicions. They were aware of Jose Basulto's earlier ties to the CIA. The fact that he and his group were operating with impunity suggested that this might be part of some officially- inspired operation against Cuba. Suspicions were stoked further when on January 15, Basulto was interviewed on Radio Marti, a radio station operated by the U.S. government. Yes, Basulto acknowledged, he had indeed overflown Havana, and he might do it again. To the Cubans, this could only be read as an official taunt.

Worse, the following day, a Radio Marti commentator, one Jose Casin, jeered at the Cuban air force. Cuba's economic crisis, he said, had resulted in such a deterioration of the military's state of readiness that it could not respond. In effect, on an official radio station, Casin was daring the Cuban military to shoot the planes down. It was irresponsible of the commentator. It was even more irresponsible of the Clinton administration to let the challenge stand.

Let us be clear. No omission on the part of the Clinton administration excused the overreaction on the part of the Castro government. The latter still maintains that the planes were downed in its airspace. But whether they were eight miles off the coast, as the Cubans claim, or fifteen, as claimed by the United States, is not the important point. The fact was that they were well off and posed no danger to Cuba at the time they were shot down. The Cubans would have done far better to have had their MIGs fire warning shots to drive the offending planes away and then to have taken the case to the United Nations. They could have charged the United States with violating the Chicago convention and creating a dangerous situation by allowing repeated penetrations of Cuban airspace. That might have been enough to force the United States to take corrective measures. In fact, the Cubans would have been better served had they raised the issue in the United Nations after the egregious overflights of January 9 and 13. Apparently, some Cuban officials wanted to do just that. Others believed U.S. assurances that it was working on the problem.

U.S. Failure to Act Was Part of a Pattern

The administration's failure to take action against Brothers to the Rescue was not an isolated omission; rather, it was part of a longstanding pattern of trying to appease, or at least do nothing to offend, the right- wing exiles in Miami. This began in 1992, when Clinton was still a candidate for the presidency, with his support for the Cuban Democracy Act (CDA) , the precursor of the Helms- Burton legislation much favored by the right- wing exiles led by Jorge Mas Canosa of the Cuban American National Foundation. The Bush administration had opposed the CDA, arguing that it would create problems internationally for the United States while having little impact on the Cuban economy. Clinton, in an effort to win Florida, endorsed the legislation (and received some $300,000 in campaign contributions from the foundation in return). Feeling himself to have been outflanked, Bush then changed his position and supported the legislation also, with the result that in November of 1992, it passed.

Bush had been right the first time. Although Congressman Robert Torricelli, the bill's principal proponent, predicted in December after it had been signed into law that it would wreak havoc in Cuba and lead to Castro's ouster "within weeks," four years later, Castro is not only still very much in power but the Cuban economy is beginning to recover. Meanwhile, however, the CDA has galvanized international opposition to U.S. policy. The vote in the U.N. General Assembly in November of 1995 was 117 to 3 to condemn our embargo. The only two countries to vote with us were Israel and Uzbekistan, and they both trade with Cuba!

As an electoral tactic, supporting the CDA won Clinton nothing. He ended up in 1992 with exactly the same percentage of the votes in Florida won by Michael Dukakis four years earlier: 39 percent. At that point, it should have dawned on strategists in the Clinton camp that neither the Cuban- American community as a whole, nor much less its ultraconservative elements, determine the outcome of elections in Florida, where the community makes up only some 6 percent of the state's population. Undaunted, however, Clinton continued to acquiesce to virtually anything the right- wing exiles wanted. For example, during the first few months of the Clinton presidency, when Jorge Mas Canosa objected to the appointment of Mario Baeza, a brilliant but moderate Cuban-American lawyer, to be assistant secretary of state, Clinton quickly dropped him. Clinton also insisted on continued funding for TV Marti, a favorite project of the right- wing exiles, even though it is never seen nor heard. It is in short a total waste of the taxpayers' money -- to the tune of $16 million a year. A move in Congress in 1994 to remove its appropriation would have succeeded had it not been for the intervention of the White House.

And to this day, Clinton has kept on Jorge Mas Canosa as the chairman of his broadcasting board for Cuba, i.e., the board that oversees the operations of both TV and Radio Marti. This, despite a temporary break between the two resulting from Clinton's decision on May 4, 1995 to send all rafters back to Cuba. Clinton had little choice. His military advisers were warning of riots at the Guantanamo naval base, where over twenty thousand rafters were living in tents. To avoid a disaster at the base, he had to bring the would- be refugees into the United States. The only way to do that without triggering another massive exodus from Cuba, however, was to announce that these would be the last rafters we would take from the island. Henceforth, all those picked up at sea by the Coast Guard would be returned directly to Cuba.

Clinton knew the right- wing exiles would strongly object to this decision, and they did. Jorge Mas Canosa publicly upbraided the president. There were public demonstrations and efforts to block freeways in the Miami area. But it was also clear that with the exception of this tiny group in Miami, public opinion was with the president. Other Floridians wanted no part of another flood of refugees, nor did Americans outside the state. In this one instance, then, the president defied the will of the right- wing exiles. The results should have suggested to him that there was no need to court them at all. But that message was lost.

Even after Mas Canosa had publicly insulted him, President Clinton could not bring himself to replace him as chairman of the broadcasting board. Worse, when the inspector-general of the U.S. Information Agency launched an investigation of Radio Marti, in part because of charges that Mas Canosa was using it as an outlet for his personal views rather than those of the U.S. government, the investigation was held up by the refusal of Mas Canosa and Rolando Bonachea, Mas's crony who had been appointed as director of Radio Marti, to give evidence to the inspector-general. This situation has continued for many months. Indeed, it continues today, with no one in the Clinton administration prepared to risk the ire of the right-wing exiles by firing Mas Canosa and directing Bonachea to either testify or step down. Indeed, incredibly, Joseph Duffy, the director of USIA, has stated that he would only instruct Bonachea to testify if the inspector-general gave assurances that nothing Bonachea said would be used against him in criminal prosecution. This is truly astonishing. If Bonachea is suspected of criminal wrongdoing, then surely he should be replaced forthwith, not protected.

All this has had a debilitating effect on Radio Marti. A number of employees who resisted Mas Canosa's demands were fired. Others, who have tried to adhere to Voice of America guidelines for accuracy, objectivity and responsible reporting, have been silenced. The irresponsible and ultimately harmful broadcasts of January 15 and 16 described above are examples of what results.

International Reaction to the Shootdown

The reaction of the international community to the shooting down of two unarmed civilian planes was stronger than Castro probably had calculated -- and more damaging to Cuba's position. True, the Security Council did not condemn Cuba as the United States had hoped, in large part because China strongly opposed condemnation. Another factor, however, was a general recognition that the incident was not precisely as the United States had described it. For one thing, there was indeed a history of earlier violations of Cuban airspace which the United States had done nothing to prevent. Hence, rather than condemnation -- a reprimand which would have opened the way to the imposition of sanctions -- the Security Council simply "strongly deplored" the Cuban action. The Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization, meeting in Montreal, followed suit, "deploring" the shootdown and calling on the secretary-general to begin a full investigation of the incident "in its entirety," a phrase suggesting there were elements to be considered beyond the shootdown itself. At this point, the United Nations can be expected to regret the Cuban action, but to impose no sanctions.

Cuba nonetheless suffered a number of setbacks. For one thing, the European Community had been negotiating an economic agreement with Cuba that might have resulted in increased trade and investments. As a direct consequence of the shootdown, those negotiations were put on hold. For another, Cuba was to have been invited as an observer to the next meeting of the Rio group. The invitation was "postponed."

International reaction to Cuba's faux pas might have been stronger and longer lasting had it not been for passage of the Helms- Burton bill in the U.S. Congress (discussed below), a development which redirected anger from Havana to Washington.

U.S. Reaction: The Good and the Bad

The president was right to refer the shootdown to the Security Council and to call on the United Nations to conduct a full investigation. To be effective and credible, such investigations must be conducted by multilateral agencies.

But strong unilateral action was also needed. What might have been the most appropriate step was suggested by GOP presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan, who said the president should state forcefully that the United States would tolerate no further shootdowns in international airspace and that he had therefore ordered military air patrols over the straits of Florida to protect civilian aircraft. So resolute an action would have been response enough. Even Buchanan would have applauded.

Might that not have proved a dangerous escalation? Hardly. The Cuban reaction to air patrols would doubtless have been that whatever happened in international airspace was none of their concern. So long as the Cubans stayed on their side of the line and we on ours, air patrols would not have exacerbated the situation and certainly would not have been opposed by the international community. One of the tougher options available to the president, in other words, would also have been the least damaging.

The steps the president actually took, however, made little sense at all, and tended to punish the United States -- or at least American citizens -- more than Cuba. For one thing, he canceled all charter flights between Miami and Havana, flights that had been carrying Cuban- Americans down to visit their families. Cuban- Americans can still visit their families and still travel on charter flights, but through Mexico or the Bahamas. It is a bit of an inconvenience to the travelers; it punishes the Cuban government not at all. In fact, the latter is deriving more revenue from the visits now than under the old system.

The president also announced stricter enforcement of travel restrictions on American citizens. Again, this inconveniences Americans, not the Cuban government, and also directly contradicts the president's stated objective of expanding contacts with the Cuban people. And he announced an expansion of Radio and TV Marti broadcasts, a measure that will affect Cuba very little, but will strengthen the hand of Jorge Mas Canosa.

Finally, and most counterproductive of all, the president put aside his earlier reservations and supported passage of the Helms- Burton bill, supposedly aimed at tightening the U.S. embargo. Given that the bill was so heavily favored by the right- wing exiles, the president had not opposed it outright; rather, he had tried to have it both ways, saying that he fully supported the objectives of the bill, i.e., Castro's ouster, but that he had doubts about the effectiveness and viability of some of its provisions. Whether or not he would have vetoed it under pre- February 24 circumstances was an open question. In any event, the chances were that a veto would not have been needed, for the bill seemed likely to stall in the Senate. That was before the shootdown. Given the truculent mood in Congress in its wake, Helms- Burton would have passed no matter what the president had done. He may have had little choice but to sign it. Even so, he had earlier pointed out that it violated international law and would cause problems with our closest friends and trading partners. He could have continued to express grave reservations even as he signed, and could have fought against provisions which weakened the presidency. Rather than that, he signed on as an enthusiastic supporter, describing the bill as "a justified response" to the February 24 shootdown. His acquiescence made it easier for proponents to make the measure even more onerous. The version of the bill signed into law on March 12 was therefore even more bellicose and at odds with international practice than was the original, and it seriously undermined the authority of the president in a way the original had not.

Senator Jesse Helms maintains that his bill will devastate the Cuban economy and bring about Castro's near- term downfall. As he put it when the bill was passed, "We can now say, adios, Fidel."

What is in the bill that is supposed to cause such devastation? A good question. One of its key provisions calls on the president, working through the U.N. Security Council, to seek a mandatory international embargo against Cuba. The problem with this is that it has not the slightest chance of success. Not a single other government cooperates with our embargo. Hence, rather than succeeding in multilateralizing the embargo, in the attempt we are likely simply to point up our own isolation and make ourselves look foolish.

The bill also calls on the Executive to take measures to oppose Cuba's participation in international financial institutions and its reintegration into the Organization of American States. But Cuba had little expectation of joining those organizations any time soon and the small added barriers imposed by Helms- Burton are of little importance.

Another provision makes it mandatory that the United States consider any effort on Cuba's part to complete construction of the nuclear power plant near Cienfuegos as "an act of aggression." Supposedly, this would require some military response, such as surgi-cal airstrikes, on the part of the United States. This, despite the fact that Cuba has signed and ratified the Tlatelolco Nuclear Nonproliferation Agreement (a fact of which the drafters of Helms- Burton seemed unaware) and is a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) now working on a full safeguards agreement. Should Cuba ever come up with the financing so that construction could move ahead (an eventuality that seems most unlikely for the foreseeable future), the plant would be fully open to IAEA inspection. Cuba has indicated on several occasions that there is no reason American inspectors could not be included. Indeed, a number of Americans have already been through the plant. In short, while the plant's safe construction and operation are of course matters of concern to the United States, there are perfectly routine ways of addressing the problem. Air strikes or other military measures would be wildly out of place. Without question, the United States would be condemned by the rest of the world as the aggressor.

A similar provision mandates reduction of any U.S. assistance to Russia by the same amount that Moscow pays Cuba for the electronic listening facility still operated by the Russians at Lourdes, near Havana. This will cause further problems in our already troubled relationship with Moscow, and for no good reason. Pentagon spokesmen had earlier stated that not only was Lourdes no threat to us, but, on the contrary, was a useful part of a network of such stations by which we mutually monitored one another's compliance with arms-reductions agreements. U.S. interests, they said, would not be served by its closing. So why reduce assistance to Russia in an effort to bring about something that is not in our interests? And how will that hurt Cuba? Again, good questions, to which Helms- Burton has no answers.

Still another provision will deny entry into the United States to any alien (and that alien's dependents) who has benefited from U.S. properties confiscated in Cuba. This would mean Queen Elizabeth could not receive a visa to come to the United States. The royal family has interests in Barings Bank and it in turn in the ING Bank, which has financed a number of ventures in Cuba that seem to include such properties. The secretary of state can exercise a waiver provision (and presumably would in the case of Queen Elizabeth). The exclusion nonetheless directly violates the North American Free Trade Association and affects many of our closest friends and trading partners. It is supposed to dissuade them from investing in Cuba; it is more likely to get their backs up. Canadians do not need visas to enter the United States, but as one Canadian businessman put it after passage of the bill, "I don't go where I'm not wanted. I've done my last business in the United States. You've become too arrogant to deal with."

By far the most controversial provision of HelmsBurton, however, is Title III, which has been described as the bill's "teeth." What it does, essentially, is to give to wealthy Cuban- Americans a privilege not enjoyed by any other group of naturalized citizens: they can now sue foreign companies in U.S. courts over properties they lost in Cuba before they became U.S. citizens. They can do so only if the properties were valued at more than $50,000, if the foreign company involved has in some way benefited from that property, and of course if the foreign company has assets in the United States for which it can be sued. The intent of the legislation is both to enable Cuban- Americans to receive some compensation for their lost properties, and to dissuade foreign companies from investing in Cuba. But it is not likely to achieve either objective. First of all, Title III's legality is in serious doubt. It is, for one thing, rankly discriminatory. How can this privilege be given to Cuban- Americans but not to, say, Palestinian-Americans and Chinese- Americans? It violates the doctrine of state and is considered by other governments to be blatantly extraterritorial in nature. Many foreign businessmen have had their lawyers examine Title III and have come away convinced that it will not stand up in U.S. court -- and thus that no one is likely to be paid anything. But even if it should survive a lengthy appeals process and some American citizens were compensated, it would act as a disincentive to only a limited number of foreign investors. Many have no or few assets in the United States for which they could be sued. The conclusion of most Canadian and European businessmen with whom the author has spoken is that at least initially, Title III would indeed result in some minor fall- off in investments, but that in the long term it would have little if any impact on the Cuban economy.

There is some question as to whether Title III will even be applied. President Clinton did win one concession in his negotiations with Congress over Helms- Burton and that was the right to waive implementation of Title III for six months at a time beginning on July 15, 1996. However, Senator Helms and the right- wing exiles have already warned that they will be watching the president closely and that any such action on his part would be entirely unacceptable to them. Whether the president will have the political courage to defy them in the months just before elections is an open question.

The Central Fallacy of Helms- Burton

Whether taken separately or as a whole, then, the sanctions imposed against Cuba under the HelmsBurton bill are unlikely to have any major effect. The idea that they will cause Castro's near- term ouster is simply an illusion, as was the same expectation in the case of the Cuban Democracy Act four years ago. But even if Helms- Burton were to work more or less as proponents aver and cause increased economic distress on the island, would that so easily result in Castro's ouster, as Senator Helms seems to expect? In the latter's mind, the equation is quite simple: we tighten our economic squeeze and Castro is thus forced to give up power, and without any painful consequences to the United States. But would it work that way? Not likely. Long before conditions on the island reached a boiling point, Castro would open the escape valve and allow tens of thousands of Cuban refugees to head north. The United States, he would say, had caused the new economic hardships from which the Cuban people wished to flee; it was only appropriate therefore that it now receive some of its victims.

What would the United States do then? The Helms- Burton bill says that we must consider any such flood of refugees as an act of aggression. Fine, but what would we do? Blow them out of the water? Bomb Cuban beaches? Declare war?

Further, the idea that Castro would give up power quietly is an illusion. He would not simply resign and go away. He would fight, and there would be many who would fight for him. To speak of Castro's ouster, then, is to speak of massive bloodshed, of a civil war from which tens of thousands of Cubans would flee across the Florida straits.

Helms- Burton, in sum, works against the most basic interest and objective the United States has in Cuba -- indeed, the most basic with respect to any Caribbean country: that the populations remain in place. We do not want tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of refugees or illegal immigrants arriving on Florida's beaches, whether they be Haitian or Cuban or some other nationality. Helms- Burton, however, cannot achieve the objectives its proponents have set for it without producing just such a tragedy.

Clearly, what would better serve the interests of the United States would be a peaceful transitional process in Cuba, one that moved the island in the direction of a more open political and economic system, even if at an evolutionary pace. And surely that would also better serve the interests of the Cuban people, who have no wish to suffer through a civil war. Not surprisingly, Cuba's religious leaders--the Catholic bishops and ecumenical council--Elizardo Sanchez, Cuba's leading human-rights activist and a member of Concilio Cubano, and various other activists, have denounced Helms- Burton as unhelpful.

International Reaction to Helms- Burton

Meanwhile, Title III and various other provisions of Helms- Burton have the international community up in arms. Canada has passed blocking legislation which will impose heavy fines on any Canadian company that complies with Helms- Burton. Canada and Mexico are both filing challenges to the bill with the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) and Canadian trade minister Arthur Eggleton has described Helms- Burton as "unacceptable." Canada has suggested further that if any of its exports to the United States are reduced, it may retaliate with reductions of its own in what it imports from the United States. The European Union is threatening to take the matter to the Geneva- based World Trade Organization. The Caribbean Community as a whole has denounced Helms- Burton, and the Russian government has not only condemned it but said that as a result it will increase its economic cooperation with Cuba.

Whether this strong reaction on the part of some of our closest friends and trading partners results in serious disruptions in our relations remains to be seen. But clearly there is a strong possibility that it will, and this points up another of Helms- Burton's fallacies: it risks damaging that which is truly important over that which is not. Our economic ties with Canada., the European Union, and Mexico are of great value. With the end of the Cold War, on the other hand, Cuba poses no conceivable threat to U.S. security and no significant problem to other U.S. interests. Nothing that we might wish to achieve in Cuba could possibly outweigh in importance those ties with our major trading partners. Yet, with Helms- Burton, the overthrow of Castro becomes our principal objective, in pursuit of which we are indeed prepared to sacrifice those ties. It is an approach without any sense of proportion or balance.

Codification: The Presidency Weakened

But the worst feature of Helms- Burton affects not Cuba or our major trading partners; rather, it affects the United States itself. Prior to Helms- Burton, most of the sanctions imposed by the U.S. against Cuba were the result of executive orders and thus could be modified or removed by the president himself. This gave him the discretionary powers he needed to conduct our relations with Cuba. He had the full authority to lift all currency and travel controls, to lift most sections of the embargo, and to devise responses to constructive steps on the Cuban side, all without congressional approval. But that is no longer the case. Under a late provision of Helms- Burton which, to the astonishment of all, was accepted by the president, all sanctions imposed under the Trading With the Enemy Act, and that is the overwhelming bulk, were codified. In other words, they are no longer based on executive orders but are now embedded in law; they can only be modified or removed by an act of Congress -- and Congress itself determines the conditions under which that might take place. They are all now locked in place until Congress is prepared to remove them -- and that may be six years, a decade, or even much longer. The president, meanwhile, does not have sufficient discretionary authority even to formulate a negotiating position with respect to Cuba. In effect, he has virtually given up -- and given up without a fight -- his authority to conduct policy toward Cuba. That is now almost entirely in the hands of Congress.This of course has implications far beyond U.S.- Cuban relations and weakens not just Bill Clinton but the presidency itself. In short, it sets a dangerous precedent.

Why would the president agree to such a derogation of powers? No one can know exactly what was in his mind, but a good guess would be that he hoped thus to defuse Cuba as an issue in the coming elections. In effect, he has washed his hands of it. The Republicans can no longer criticize his handling of the Cuban issue, for initiatives are now in the hands of the Republican- controlled Congress, not of the president.

The president himself has chosen to ignore or obfuscate this diminution of power simply by saying it isn't so. In his statement of March 12 as he signed Helms- Burton, he insisted that he interpreted "the act as not derogating from the president's authority to conduct foreign policy."

One would of course expect him to say that. But if he thinks his authority to conduct policy is undiminished, he should ask himself if he could still, say, lift the prohibition on the sale of foods and medicines (a prohibition which almost certainly violates international law), or lift travel controls, in return for some concession on the Cuban side? The answer is that he could not. The tactic of "carefully calibrated responses" he had spoken of earlier is now dead. Indeed, even if Cuba tomorrow held fully open, democratic elections for its national assembly, there could be no response from the United States if Castro won a seat in those elections (as he almost certainly would), for Helms- Burton rules out engagement with any government that includes Castro.

Consequences and Implications

The administration's longstanding policy of acquiescing to the demands of the right- wing exiles with respect to Cuba policy has now resulted in a situation in which their agenda, and the agenda of the most ultra- conservative wing of the Republican Party has become that of the U.S. government. The embargo has been frozen in place for many years to come and the United States locked into a policy of rigid hostility toward the island. Most Americans want to see Cuba move in the direction of a more open system and to show greater respect for human rights. Most foreign governments have the same objective. The latter disagree, however, that increased pressure is the way to bring that about. They note that change was encouraged in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union through reduced tensions and expanded contacts with the West: trade, academic and cultural exchanges and the opening up of travel in both directions. They ask why the United States does not try the same tactic with respect to Cuba, especially as what it has been doing for the past thirty-five years obviously hasn't worked? Many Americans had come to share that skepticism and to hope that over the next few years, it might be possible to shift to a policy of gradual engagement more suited to the post- Cold War era. That hope has now been dashed. It is the right- wing exiles who are dictating Cuba policy and they will tolerate no engagement. Already the United States is risking disputes and disruptions with major trading partners so that a few wealthy CubanAmericans have recourse to U.S. courts in an effort to secure compensation. There may be worse to come, for it has become increasingly clear that nothing short of military action against the island will satisfy the right- wing exile leaders. Jorge Mas Canosa has called for a naval blockade, which is an act of war. Imagine the reaction should U.S. naval vessels begin stopping French, Canadian and Russian ships bound for Cuba! Brothers to the Rescue, moreover, have made it clear that they will not cease their "missions." More penetrations of Cuban air space can be expected. If that provokes a clash between the United States and Cuba, they will have achieved their most cherished goal.

Worst of all, the presidency has been weakened and a dangerous precedent set. If the president will concede his authority in this area, where else might he acquiesce? The same elements in Congress who crammed through Helms- Burton are the ones who prevent the United States from paying its dues to the United Nations and other international organizations, who are opposed to easing trade barriers, and who are perfectly willing to have us violate international law, as well as agreements and conventions the United States has signed and sworn to uphold. One has the impression that they would prefer that the United States go it alone rather than play an integral role within an increasingly interdependent international system. That these elements have ridden roughshod over the president, are in outright control of one area of foreign policy and reaching for others, does not bode well for steady, responsible American leadership into the next century.

Wayne S. Smith was chief of the U.S. interests section in Havana in 1979-82.

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