The Far Reach of the Helms-­Burton Act


By Richard Grassl
The Economic War Against Cuba
by Salim Lamrani (Monthly Review Press NY, 2013) is a valuable
resource on the 53-­‐year-­‐old U.S. economic blockade of Cuba. Through an objecNve descripNon of
documented facts, Professor Lamrani explains how an obsolete policy that ignores “just cause” has led
eleven consecuNve residents of the White House to conNnue a program doomed to fail.
U.S. policy toward Cuba originates from an expansionist desire to possess Cuba. The
passed by Congress in March 1996 reflects U.S. contempt for internaNonal law. Lamrani’s Chapter 5,
“Extraterritorial ApplicaNons of the Economic SancNons,” provides an understanding of the complex
relaNons involved with 3
countries as a result of such an anachronisNc law. Foreign businesses and
financial insNtuNons are forbidden to engage in transacNons with direct or indirect connecNon to Cuba.
Helms-­‐Burton’s primary objecNve was to consolidate all previous U.S. regulatory codes, amendments,
laws and ExecuNve orders “on the books,” in order to strengthen the U.S. posiNon against Cuba. To
accomplish this, one strategy was to remove discreNonary power from the President to conduct certain
foreign policy. This enabled self-­‐interest groups to manipulate the Cuban-­‐American community -­‐-­‐ and to
pressure Congress -­‐-­‐ for their own narrow purposes. Although hosNlity had existed many years before
the collapse of the Soviet Union, “Strengthening InternaNonal SancNons against the Castro government”
was the focus of Helms-­‐Burton Title I. Helms-­‐Burton has o^en been referred to as the modern day
equivalent of the Pla` Amendment (1901). This was an appendix to the Cuban ConsNtuNon that, among
other sNpulaNons, allowed U.S. military intervenNon in Cuba’s internal affairs whenever a U.S.
“governor” deemed that popular rebellion threatened U.S. corporate interests on the island.
Helms-­‐Burton further provided codificaNon that allowed the Florida-­‐based anN-­‐Cuban old guard to
obstruct normalizaNon of relaNons through Congressional roadblocks. Not unNl codificaNon of the
blockade did U.S. foreign policy move from being an internaNonal issue to a domesNc
, thereby
damaging U.S./Cuba relaNons. When Radio MarN moved from Washington DC to Miami in 1996, U.S.
hosNlity toward Cuba intensified, resulNng ulNmately in the convicNon of five Cuban anNterrorists (the
Cuban Five).
The right of a sovereign, independent naNon to conduct its own affairs free from external interference by
foreign powers is a fundamental asserNon of internaNonal law. Lamrani points out: “Numerous United
NaNons resoluNons condemn the use of unilateral and arbitrary economic sancNons and extraterritorial
measures… Not all of these principles are respected by the United States.” Helms-­‐Burton is controversial
because it violates these very principles. Title II makes demands on Cuba that would result only in a
collision course with their revoluNonary government; it purports to define the type of government most
desirable for Cubans. The cynicism does not stop here. In an a`empt to twist the meaning of democracy
and solidarity that are contained in the official name,
The Cuban Liberty and DemocraNc Solidarity
(Libertad) Act of 1996,
the law is perversely worded. SecNon 204 describes steps to “terminate the
economic embargo of Cuba” pending the destrucNon of the revoluNon, i.e. once “a transiNon
government is in power,” while SecNons 205 and 206 list requirements for a Cuban government
subservient to U.S. interests. Finally, SecNon 207 establishes that the essenNal condiNon for full
resumpNon of economic and diplomaNc relaNons between the U.S. and Cuba remains the return of all
land and property [legally] naNonalized by the Cuban government a^er January 1, 1959. In this regard,
U.S. refusal to accept a Cuban offer for compensaNon, authorized by the Agrarian Reform Law of May 17,
1959, precipitated the breaking of diplomaNc relaNons with Cuba on January 3, 1961.
Obviously, the complexity of economic and poliNcal relaNons makes li^ing the blockade a lengthy and
formidable task. It may indeed be impossible to negoNate terms using an incremental approach.
However, one imagines that taking Cuba off the State Department list of naNons supporNng terrorist
organizaNons would be a priority. Furthermore, the U.S. President must be willing to “relinquish
exercise of authoriNes
” under the Trading with the Enemy Act , in order to use his consNtuNonal
prerogaNve to influence a change of direcNon in foreign policy. And, Congress could reverse travel
sancNons and arrange financial credit approval for U.S. banking insNtuNons to do business with Cuba. In
this way, the ExecuNve Order 3447 “Embargo on all trade with Cuba,” imposed by President Kennedy in
February 1962, would be li^ed.
Resolving the case of five
Cuban anN-­‐terrorist fighters
, three of whom sNll remain unjustly incarcerated
in U.S. prisons, is another challenge. Cuba is a signatory to the Montreal ConvenNon, January 26, 1973,
that commits governments to prosecute any act of air piracy or bombing related to commercial airliners.
U.S. officials fail to exonerate innocent men, calling them “bad terrorists” for exposing violent criminal
plots against Cuba. Yet Luis Posada Carriles, who is responsible for the bombing of a
Cuban plane in 1976
among other crimes, and an internaNonal fugiNve from Venezuelan jusNce, walks the streets of Miami in
freedom and is called a “good terrorist”.
The secret to dialogue with Cuba does not require “back channels” if discussions are done in public.
What is keeping President Obama from discussing issues with the Castro government, when 188 naNons
repeatedly vote YES for the Cuban resoluNon to condemn the U.S. economic, commercial and financial
Richard Grassl lives and writes in Washington.–views.html,


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