- The Washington Times - Monday, June 11, 2001

President Bush is facing his first major foreign policy decision on U.S.-Cuba relations — whether to waive or enforce a U.S. law that allows American companies to sue the island nation over land seized during its communist revolution.

President Clinton regularly exercised his right to waive the provision under the terms of the 1996 Helms-Burton law, sponsored by Sen. Jesse Helms and Rep. Dan Burton.

Mr. Bush, who must make a decision by mid-July, stands to anger the anti-Castro Cuban-American community in South Florida, whose support helped put him in the White House, if he continues to waive enforcement of the law.

But by allowing the law to be enforced, he would exacerbate strained relations with the European Union, where companies have invested heavily in Cuba.

At issue is a provision in the Helms-Burton legislation, known as "Title 3." It allows U.S. "nationals" to use federal courts to seek compensation from foreign companies doing business in Cuba on property that was confiscated by the island´s communist regime 40 years ago.

"President Bush is under a lot of pressure to waive Title 3, but we are optimistic. His heart is in the right place," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican. "I am hoping, and wishing and praying that he allows these guys whose property was stolen to go to court to get compensation."

Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen said that corporate lobbyists, fearing a disruption of business relations with Europe, are working overtime to persuade Mr. Bush to exercise the waiver but that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is advising that he allow the suits to go forward.

"If President Bush suspends [Title 3] there will be great disillusionment in the Cuban-American community because they wanted to think that this president was different from Clinton," said Nicolas Gutierrez, a Miami lawyer.

Mr. Gutierrez represents families whose property was confiscated and is now being used by foreign concerns that also do business in the United States.

He said he has dozens of lawsuits ready to be filed under Title 3 against companies such as Sol Melia, a Spanish hotel concern; Labatt´s Brewing Co. in Canada; the Venezuelan oil company that owns Citgo; and a host of other companies.

The European Union, some U.S. business interests, left-leaning anti-embargo groups and the Cato Institute oppose the use of U.S. courts for redress.

"Helms-Burton has antagonized our allies, further isolated ordinary Cubans from the influence of American ideas and strengthened the hand of the very government the policy was supposed to undermine," said a recent Cato Institute study. "The act has backfired."

Mr. Gutierrez said he spoke with Mr. Bush at a Miami event recently and concluded that Mr. Bush is leaning toward waiving the measure one more time.

If true, many Cuban-Americans want something else: a murder indictment against Fidel Castro for the 1996 shootdown in international airspace of two planes operated by the Miami-based Cuban exile group, Brothers to the Rescue.

In Miami, a Cuban agent named Gerardo Hernandez was found guilty on Friday of conspiracy to murder in the incident. Four Americans died when the planes were shot down by Cuban jet fighters.

"Our hope and expectation is that the president will allow Title 3 to come into force. If that is not possible, at the top of column B would be to get justice in the case of the young men murdered in the Brothers to the Rescue shootdown," said Dennis Hays, Washington director of the Cuban American National Foundation.

Mr. Clinton signed the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, known as Helms-Burton for its Republican sponsors — Mr. Helms of North Carolina and Mr. Burton of Indiana — just days after the shootdown.

Shortly after Mr. Castro came to power in 1959, his revolution confiscated an estimated $1.8 billion in U.S.-owned property from dozens of U.S. companies that have been designated "certified claimants."

They include Exxon, Firestone, Sears, General Electric, Coca-Cola, Colgate-Palmolive and others with claims now worth more than $6 billion.

Title 3 also permits claims by Cuban-American exiles who have become U.S. citizens, raising the estimated value of all the property covered by the act to as much as $100 billion.

"Title 3 is the teeth of the bill," said Ralph Galliano, editor of the U.S.-Cuba Policy Report, which follows the property compensation issue. "The Bush administration has to assess the political cost of waiving."

Mr. Galliano said Cuban-Americans are looking to the Bush administration for a significant gesture regarding Cuba´s communist regime.

Mr. Bush named Mel Martinez, a Cuban-American, as secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He nominated Otto Reich, an anti-Castro Cuban-American, to be assistant secretary of State for Latin America.

Mr. Bush also has invited dozens of prominent Cuban-Americans, including the Cuban-American members of Congress and singer Gloria Estefan, to the White House to celebrate Cuban independence from Spain.

In addition, the president has signaled his support for pending legislation to provide $100 million in U.S. assistance over four years to dissidents on the island.

"All of that is greatly appreciated, but they are symbols," said a Republican staff member on Capitol Hill. "Title 3 is the meat."

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