- The Washington Times - Monday, April 9, 2001

The Cuban American National Foundation, America's largest and best organized anti-Castro lobby, is pioneering a new legal strategy to hold foreign investors who do business with the communist regime liable for violating international and U.S. labor law.

Following on the successes of Holocaust survivors and others who have sued businesses that operated under dictatorships and profited from "slave labor," CANF is in negotiations to retain an "old established law firm" in Washington to sue foreign businesses operating in Cuba for the way they treat their Cuban employees.

CANF hopes to file the suits under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA), enacted in 1789. The tactic was first reported last week in Cuba Trader, a Cuba business newsletter.

"We see an emerging body of law that say corporations bear responsibility for the way they treat their workers," said Dennis Hays, CANF's Washington director, in an interview on Friday.

"The businesses may have been in compliance with the laws of the nation where they were operating, but when they violate international labor standards they can be held accountable."

He said Holocaust survivors have successfully used the courts to get redress from companies that used slave labor in Nazi Germany. More recently, the Supreme Court last month rejected a bid by Shell Oil to dismiss a lower court finding that it was responsible for human rights abuses suffered by its employees in Nigeria.

Another case found that Unocal Corp., a leading oil company, could be held responsible for rights abuses suffered by its employees in Burma. Both cases are still pending, but taken together, CANF believes that foreign investors in Cuba can be held legally responsible for violations of International Labor Organization (ILO) standards in Cuba.

"We understand we are breaking new ground here. We are not there yet, but Shell's attempt to weasel out of its responsibilities in Nigeria opened the door for us," Mr. Hays said.

Michael Posner, the director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, said ATCA was enacted shortly after the American Revolution in order to prosecute pirates who violated "the law of nations."

In the past 20 years, he said, it has been used some 20 times to go after foreign government and military officials accused of political killings, torture and disappearances in El Salvador, Argentina, Paraguay and the Philippines.

Regarding the Shell and Unocal cases, Mr. Posner said the oil companies were accused of being "complicit with the governments in massive human rights abuses."

Without commenting on the specific merits of the CANF strategy, he said that using ATCA to charge companies with abuse of workers for anything short of political killings, torture or disappearances would take the law into new territory.

Mr. Hays, and other critics of foreign investment in Cuba, accuse the Castro government and foreign investors of collaborating to create a system of "slave labor."

By contract, foreign investors must hire Cuban workers through the government. The foreign investor pays the government in U.S. dollars, say $100 a month per worker, but the Cuban government pays the workers in Cuban pesos at a rate that amounts to about $10 to $15 per month.

Critics also accuse the Cuban government of prohibiting union organizing, a right granted under ILO standards.

Mr. Hays said CANF and its legal team are taking a hard look at Sherritt International of Canada, a nickel mining and natural gas concern, and Grupo Sol Melia, a Spanish hotel and tourism group.

Sherritt executives have already been denied visas to the United States under the Helms-Burton Act for using properties confiscated from U.S. citizens by the Cuban government. The Bush administration is expected to do the same with the Sol Melia executives within the next few months.

CANF hopes to attach assets held in the United States, should it prevail in court. Sol Melia operates a hotel in Miami, but Sherritt International has no assets in the United States.

"Since 1995, Sherritt has had a total of zero assets in the United States," said Patrice Merrin Best, chief operating officer of Sherritt International in Toronto. "The [CANF strategy] has no application to us. There is not one iota of Sherritt International in the United States."

Mrs. Merrin Best, who along with her family is banned from the United States, said Sherritt workers make about $1,200 a year, which gives them "huge purchasing power in Cuba."

"They laugh and slap their legs when they hear that some people consider them slave labor," she said.

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