Clinton Cuba Policy Juggles US Voters, Irate Trade Allies

President Clinton must decide by today whether to risk his political standing in Florida and New Jersey or risk an economic war with Canada, Mexico, and the European Union. At issue is whether the president will waive one of the most controversial provisions of a new law aimed at increasing economic pressure on Cuba.

Under the Helms-Burton Act, Americans will be able to file lawsuits against foreign companies using their property in Cuba - property that was confiscated by President Fidel Castro in 1959. Nearly 6,000 claimants have registered to seek compensation for an estimated $1.8 billion of property seized.

The law sets a minimum threshold value on property at $50,000, so most of the claimants are corporate. But others, such as Miami lawyer Nick Gutierrez, also plan to sue. Mr. Gutierrez represents 100 claimants, including his own family. After the revolution, two sugar mills, a bank, and an insurance company owned by the Gutierrez family were all seized by the Castro government.

"Today, Lloyd's of London is running its Havana operations out of my aunt's old house," says Gutierrez. "They can have it. But it's only fair that they compensate her for it."

UNDER another provision of the law, the US said last week it would deny visas to shareholders and senior executives of four firms - in Canada, France, Spain, and Israel - unless they divest their business interests in Cuba.

But the US trade partners say Washington has no right to meddle in their business with Cuba.

In a diplomatic note, the European Union has warned Washington that the law violates "the basic principles of international law." Yesterday foreign ministers from 15 EU nations met to discuss retaliatory measures. Among the possible steps: Freezing US assets, placing visa restrictions on US executives traveling to Europe, and enabling European companies to launch suits against the US to recover any amounts awarded in US courts.

Canada's trade minister says the bill violates the North American Free Trade Agreement. Canada has talked of striking back by urging its citizens to boycott Florida, where about 2 million Canadians spend $1.3 billion every winter.

Clinton says he wants to maximize the pressure on Mr. Castro and minimize the impact on foreign firms. But domestic politics are expected to play a role in his decision. Cuban-Americans are a vocal and influential bloc of voters in Florida and New Jersey, both of which are pivotal swing states in the presidential election.

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