President Clinton decided Tuesday that averting a confrontation with U.S. trading partners is more important than imposing sanctions on foreign firms operating in Cuba. He delayed by at least six months the effective start of a new law that leaves such businesses open to lawsuits in federal courts.
Confronted with conflicting demands from Cuban Americans and U.S. allies over how best to isolate Fidel Castro’s regime, Clinton tried to split the difference. Declining to waive a new, Republican-sponsored law, he let stand a controversial provision saying U.S. citizens whose land and buildings were seized following Cuba’s 1959 revolution now have the right to sue foreign corporations that are using the property today.
But Clinton also took an unexpected step by ordering that the date by which lawsuits can actually be filed be pushed back six months and pledged to use the delay to reach agreement with allies on policy toward Cuba.
Facing a midnight deadline for action, Clinton effectively deferred the issue until after the November general election. Come February, if he is re-elected, he can decide whether to allow lawsuits to be filed, or to extend the moratorium.
This labored effort to bridge what administration officials earlier had fretted was an unbridgeable conflict over the so-called Helms-Burton law drew a mixed response. Canada and several European countries including Britain and France expressed relief that Clinton had avoided an immediate showdown, but both Ottawa and the 15-nation European Union said they would still prepare a list of possible retaliatory steps. A leading Cuban American group offered muted praise, which took at least some of the political sting out a barrage of Republican criticism that accused Clinton of being indecisive and coddling Castro.
Clinton signed the Helms-Burton law under heavy congressional pressure earlier this year after Cuba shot down two civilian airplanes flown by Cuban American groups over international waters. From the beginning, White House aides were frank in saying it presented Clinton with an agonizing choice.
Republicans, backed by the politically potent Cuban American communities in Florida and New Jersey, were demanding that Clinton let the law go fully into effect. U.S. allies protested that Helms-Burton violates international law by penalizing third parties over a U.S.-Cuban dispute. The allies threatened tough trade sanctions against the United States unless Clinton used his authority under the law to waive the provision on lawsuits.
In a statement, Clinton said he would use the six-month delay to persuade reluctant U.S. allies to “join us in taking concrete steps to promote democracy in Cuba” such as by increasing pressure on the regime to open up politically and economically, and by withholding foreign assistance to Castro. At the end of the period, Clinton said he would decide “whether to end the suspension, in whole or in part,” based on the degree of allied cooperation.
But Republicans said the decision reflected a classic Clinton penchant for trying to please all sides on a difficult issue.
“President Clinton is trying to have it both ways on U.S. policy toward Cuba,” presumptive Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole said in a statement. “He claims he is allowing a penalty to go into effect - civil liability for trafficking in expropriated property - but he will not allow American citizens to use American courts to seek justice.”
But the Cuban-American National Foundation said it was pleased that Clinton had at least affirmed the principle that foreign firms using property that used to be owned by U.S. companies and citizens was in violation of U.S. law, even though people can not yet file lawsuits on their grievances.
In Brussels, the European Union said in a statement that it “welcomes this decision as far as it goes,” but said it still objected to the Helms-Burton law’s attempts to apply U.S. law outside U.S. borders.