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THE NATION | HELMS-BURTON

Is Hurting Cuba Worth Alienating Friends?

March 02, 1997|Wayne S. Smith | Wayne S. Smith is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a visiting professor of Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins University. He was chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 1979 until 1982, when he left the Foreign Service because of disagreements over policy

WASHINGTON — During the debate over the Helms-Burton bill, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and other proponents assured us that Canadian and European opposition to the legislation was just so much noise. They wouldn't really take retaliatory action. After all, wasn't their trade and overall relationship with us far more important to them than their trade with and investments in Cuba?

The Clinton administration was no less reassuring. The European Union, it said, would not really take its complaints against Helms-Burton to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Why, that might undermine the WTO itself, which, surely, the Europeans didn't wish to do. Anyway, the administration noted, hadn't the president postponed implementation of Title III, the Helms-Burton provision under which U.S. nationals can sue foreign companies in U.S. courts over properties lost in Cuba 30 years ago? Postponement should satisfy them.

True, said the Europeans and Canadians, you are our friends and we value our commercial relations with you, which are beneficial to both sides. But this is not a matter of the relative importance of our trade with you as opposed to our trade with Cuba. Helms-Burton violates our sovereignty, violates international law and, yes, violates the rules of conduct laid down by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), now administered by the WTO. By adopting such legislation, the United States is, in effect, placing itself above the law and in defiance of the rules of the game that it itself had agreed to respect. If such conduct is allowed to go unchallenged, the whole organization is diminished.

Furthermore, said the Europeans, while postponing implementation of Title III is a welcome step, it does not go nearly far enough. It leaves the measure hanging over us like the sword of Damocles. The only real solution is repeal, if not of Helms-Burton as a whole, at least of its most offensive sections. Short of that, we will have to take action in the WTO.

Stuff and nonsense, said Helms and the administration. They won't do a thing.

But Helms and the administration were dead wrong, and now the piper is to be paid. In mid-February, all efforts at compromise having failed, the European Union moved ahead with the complaint it had already filed against the United States in the WTO. In accordance with usual procedure, a panel has been formed to decide whether Helms-Burton violates the rules of conduct.

The United States has reacted by claiming vociferously that the WTO should not have jurisdiction and by refusing to participate in the dispute-resolution process. This is not, it says, your usual trade dispute; rather, it is a matter of U.S. national security. The Europeans smile at the argument, but note that, in any event, with or without the United States, the panel will deliberate and reach a judgment.

What seems likely to happen is that the panel will find Helms-Burton to be in violation. The WTO will then call on the United States either to repeal the law or so modify it as to bring it within established rules. But neither repeal nor modification are options readily available to the administration, for Congress would more likely vote to withdraw from the WTO than to change Helms-Burton. Thus, the administration will probably refuse to abide by the WTO judgment, again claiming that this is a matter of vital national security. But that option also would have unfortunate consequences, for it would establish a precedent seriously weakening the organization. In the future, other countries, following the U.S. lead, would simply reject judgments against them on national-security grounds, their claims being no more specious than ours.

The WTO is an organization the United States worked long and hard to bring to fruition, and one that has well served U.S. interests. The overwhelming majority of trade disputes on which it has ruled have been resolved in our favor. Why do we now undermine the very organization we helped create?

The administration's claim that we must do so for reasons of national security is simply embarrassing. With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Cuban-Soviet alliance, Cuba does not, in any way, threaten U.S. security. It has no nuclear weapons or offensive capability of any kind. Some have mentioned the Juragua nuclear-power plant as a concern, but, in fact, the plant is an empty shell on which construction stopped years ago and which Fidel Castro has now acknowledged is not likely ever to resume. Thus, the claim that his impoverished little island somehow threatens our security is without substance and, more than anything else, demeans our own nation.

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