- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 8, 2006

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico issued a complaint yesterday against Hotel Maria Isabel Sheraton in Mexico City after it complied with a U.S. government request to expel a group of Cuban officials meeting with U.S. energy executives last week.

The expulsion outraged Mexico, an ally of Cuba, and alarmed American businesses that feel trapped between complying with Washington’s demands and pleasing their host country.

“This is kind of one of the rare moments that really brings out the ugliness of the Helms-Burton law that puts American business in a tight position,” said Al Zapanta, president of the 2,000-member U.S.-Mexico Chamber of Commerce, referring to the 1996 U.S. law that strengthened sanctions in place against Cuba since 1961.

“You have to go into the international marketplace, and you have to operate within the laws of the host country,” he said.

Brookly McLaughlin, a spokesman for the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said the department asked Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., which owns the hotel, to expel the Cuban delegation in compliance with the Trading with the Enemy Act, established in 1917. The meeting was moved to a Mexican-owned hotel Saturday.

The act bans U.S. businesses and their subsidiaries from doing business with Cubans outside the United States.

Mexican officials, however, said the hotel violated investment and trade protection laws when its manager told the Cubans to leave.

In 1996, after the United States approved the Helms-Burton Act — which banned foreign investment in Cuba on properties confiscated from Americans — Mexico, Canada and other countries produced “antidote laws” meant to outlaw compliance with the U.S. measures.

Larry Rubin, chief executive officer of the American Chamber of Commerce in Mexico, said the hotel should have consulted Mexican authorities before booting the Cubans.

“Corporations have to find a balance,” said Mr. Rubin, whose 2,000 members represent 93 percent of U.S. investment in Mexico. “If it goes against Mexican law, then we cannot apply it because first we have to abide by Mexican law. … I mean you don’t see American corporations down here breaking contracts and solving the matter in the U.S. court system. It just doesn’t operate that way.”

Many wonder how far the Bush administration will go to undermine Fidel Castro’s Communist government.

“If you take this to its logical extreme, no Cuban can stay at any American hotel in the world and no Cuban can buy a McDonald’s hamburger anywhere,” said Kirby Jones, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade Association and the organizer of last week’s private-sector energy summit at the Sheraton.

A Mexican businessman found himself caught between the two countries’ politics in 1996.

Ramon Saul Sanchez, head of the anti-Castro Democracy Movement in Miami, said the United States should not extend its laws beyond its borders — but neither should U.S. executives do business with Cuba.

“These were two wrongs,” he said.

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