Cuba Fixation Splits US from Rest of Hemisphere

As the hemisphere's most powerful nation, the United States has rarely been on the losing side of a vote at the Organization of American States (OAS). Yet, earlier this month at the OAS's annual General Assembly in Panama, the US stood alone as the governments of Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean agreed on a resolution calling for a review of the Helms-Burton law regulating US relations with Cuba.

While the resolution itself was mild, it represented a clear rejection by every other country of the Americas of US policy toward Cuba. Nowhere, not even in Washington, was it interpreted as anything less. And President Clinton is now likely to encounter the same rejection at the upcoming G-7 meeting of the world's wealthiest nations.

Why the opposition? Cuba has clearly lost whatever appeal it once had as an economic or political model. Cuba's trade is minuscule, far too small for any country to risk its commercial ties with the US. Still, Latin American governments are concerned about Cuba and about US policy.

The governments of the hemisphere resent the "extra territorial" provisions of US legislation, which are directed toward punishing their industries and their citizens, and which probably violate existing treaties such as NAFTA and GATT. The Helms-Burton law imposes penalties on foreign companies and their executives who do business in Cuba. Its predecessor levied sanctions against overseas subsidiaries of US companies that traded with Cuba.

Through a variety of initiatives - Enterprise for the Americas, NAFTA, and the Summit of the Americas, for example - the Clinton and Bush administrations promised greater cooperation and partnership in inter-American relations. Nothing, however, clashes more with the idea of hemispheric cooperation than US policy toward Cuba, which represents the US at its most unilateral, made-in-Washington style of decisionmaking. Even though the US and Latin America share the same goal - a peaceful transition to a democratic Cuba - Washington rarely consults with any nation about its Cuba policy, doggedly resists discussing Cuba at the OAS, and rejects any meaningful multilateral approach toward Fidel Castro Ruz. Not surprisingly, given how the US deals with Latin America on Cuba, skepticism remains about partnership with Washington on other fronts.

Many in Latin America see the US obsession with Cuba diminishing the quality and intensity of US attention to other hemispheric issues and opportunities. There is no question that the US policy community gives inordinate significance to Cuba - way out of proportion to its size or importance. With the possible exception of Mexico, no country in Latin America is more debated on Capitol Hill, written and talked about in the media, or discussed in policy forums.

Finally, Latin American and Caribbean governments believe they are right about Cuba and the US is wrong. They see US policy as a dead end that will neither change Mr. Castro's politics nor push him from office - that will, more likely than not, provoke greater repression, stymie reform prospects, and prolong Castro's days in power. Worse yet, they fear that coercive US policy, rather than promoting a peaceful transition, could be swelling the chances of political violence and increasing the dangers of US military action - with all of its potentially devastating effects on US relations in the hemisphere.

Latin American and Caribbean leaders want to avoid confrontation with the US over Cuba. They know how much they stand to lose from such confrontation - and how little to gain. They also understand the domestic politics of US Cuba policy, and thus how difficult it is to change course. Nonetheless, their concerns are real, and US-Latin American friction over Cuba will almost certainly intensify if Washington chooses to sustain a policy that is highly coercive and extraterritorial in its reach. In two weeks, Mr. Clinton has to decide whether to put the Helms-Burton legislation on full throttle or whether to postpone implementation of its most controversial provision. His decision will have important consequences for Western Hemisphere relations.

* Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

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