Clinton Tosses Bush a Cuba Hot Plantain

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Thousands of pro-Cuba foreigners and Americans protest the U.S. trade embargo

Bill Clinton got him off the hook this time, but come July George W. Bush is going to face some tough choices on Cuba. The outgoing President on Wednesday issued yet another six-month waiver of a law allowing U.S. citizens whose property was nationalized by Fidel Castro during the 1960s to sue non-U.S. companies doing business with Cuba. The law was passed in 1996, as part of the Helms-Burton package that tightened the embargo against Cuba, and also provided for U.S. sanctions against foreign companies trading with the communist island state. But President Clinton's waiver has ensured that it has never been applied, much to the chagrin of such leading Republicans as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms.

So why can't George W. Bush simply apply the law passed by his party?

Well, for one thing it's probably a violation of the free trade agreements to which Washington is a signatory. The Europeans, Canadians and Latin Americans who trade freely with both Cuba and the U.S. have responded sharply to what they perceive as a U.S. attempt to impose its own Cuba policy on others, and have challenged the legislation as a violation of World Trade Organization rules. President Clinton began using the waiver once the Europeans made clear that they would take the matter before the WTO, and seek retaliatory trade sanctions against the U.S. — and they'd probably win, meaning American business would ultimately bear the cost of the Helms-Burton legislation. The Europeans, Canadians and Latin Americans, of course, have little sympathy for Washington's Cuba policy, which they regard as an archaic relic of the Cold War. So Clinton simply repeatedly postponed a confrontation by using his waiver. But this week's waiver expires in July, at which point President George W. Bush would have to try his hand at reconciling the Helms-Burton act with Washington's obligations under international free-trade agreements. Republican realism on Cuba There may be a second reason the new Bush administration may be tempted to maintain President Clinton's waiver — the widespread, if relatively muted, recognition among the GOP's foreign policy grownups that the longstanding embargo of Cuba may no longer be serving the U.S. national interest, if that interest includes influencing events in a post-Castro scenario. Publicly, of course, they'll all hold the line. Secretary of State–designate Colin Powell on Wednesday dutifully upheld the embargo during his confirmation hearing, even though he'd previously concluded at the end of his own book that it was time to end the Cold War isolation of Cuba. Indeed, a number of the Republican foreign policy heavyweights introduced by Bush on the campaign as key foreign policy advisers, such as former secretaries of state Lawrence Eagleburger, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, have signed on to legislative attempts to institute a comprehensive bipartisan review of U.S. Cuba policy.

Inheriting Clinton's dilemma

He may waive implementation of aspects of the legislation, but it was President Clinton who actually signed Helms-Burton into law. That was in early 1996, shortly after Fidel Castro's air force shot down two unarmed civilian aircraft flown by Miami-based exiles that had been flying propaganda missions into Cuban airspace — and Mr. Clinton saw Florida as one of the critical battleground states in that year's reelection campaign. The legislation will make life difficult for President Bush, too, of course, because it transformed the Cuba embargo from a presidential decree into an act of Congress. And it'll force the new president, like his predecessor, to choose between violating WTO regulations and facing down a very angry Senator Jesse Helms — and some even angrier and very organized folks down in Miami whose yeoman work last November may have helped him carry the electoral college.