Recently the Clinton administration offered Europeans a compromise over the Libertad Act (Helms-Burton law). The European Union (EU) would suspend its complaint against the law for six months. In exchange, the administration would consult with Congress toward providing the president with waiver authority on Title IV, which denies US entry to any foreigner trafficking in illegally confiscated US property in Cuba.
Congress should oppose such a "compromise." It demonstrates lack of commitment to full implementation of the law. We must not jeopardize concrete tools for vague assurances and "feel good" promises from the Europeans. Congress must invoke its oversight responsibilities to ensure the force of law is not usurped by peripheral, extraneous negotiations. I have included provisions in the Foreign Policy Reform Act of 1997 (to be considered on the House floor in early June) that, among other things, call for strict reporting requirements on the implementation of sections of the Libertad Act.
The US must stand firm until definitive actions from the Europeans show they are committed to bringing an end to the suffering and oppression of the Cuban people, and until they stop prolonging the current situation on the island by helping to fill the coffers of the Castro regime.
The fact is there is no basis to the EU complaint. This was confirmed during hearings of the Subcommittee on International Economic Policy and Trade when the merits were discussed from a foreign-policy, legal, and economic perspective.
The EU complaint derives from one central argument: the "extraterritorial" application of the US trade embargo established in 1962 and codified in various sections of the Libertad Act. But international law has long recognized that each country has the right to choose the economic principles that will govern its relations with trading partners, including the right to maintain long-term trade and foreign policy. Thus the act falls well within our right: It merely supplements and enforces prior US policy and current US law.
Furthermore, the application of punitive measures in Titles III and IV is within US boundaries - that is, it is merely an invocation of US sovereign rights. The US has jurisdiction to prescribe law with respect to activities of its nationals outside as well as within its territory. In addition, the US has jurisdiction to prescribe laws with respect to outside conduct that has a substantial effect within its own territory. On both grounds, the evidence justifies implementation of the Libertad Act and supports its legal standing at the international level. On the EU contention that the US, through the 35-year-old embargo and the Libertad Act, violates or interferes with free trade, these are the facts: The US has not engaged in any protectionist measures, has received no commercial comparative advantage as a result of the embargo, and has not caused any undue harm to the EU's economic interest.
The Libertad Act does not directly interfere with the right of third countries to trade with Cuba. Foreign companies can continue to exploit US property in Cuba. However, in doing so, those companies risk their access to US markets and, if Title III is ever implemented, will be held legally accountable for their actions.
The Libertad Act - in working toward transition to democracy in Cuba and establishing strict guidelines toward this goal - would lead to a future environment conducive to economic growth where US businesses and the Cuban people will be able to prosper. Free trade does not work without private property. Property rights and a private sector do not exist in Cuba today. The Libertad Act protects property rights, reestablishes the expectation of recovery that is virtually lost when Europeans traffic in property confiscated from US citizens, and counters the lawless exploitation of property that poisons the well for future investment.
The arguments raised by US allies would perhaps be more persuasive if their policies of constructive engagement had produced even the slightest meaningful change in Cuba in any realm - political, economic, social, judicial, or human rights. The US does not always agree with its allies. The Libertad Act is but one element in a vast environment of US foreign relations. It is thus unnecessary for the US to offer any kind of compromise to the EU to ensure that relations between the two parties remain positive and productive.
US government leaders must remember that US foreign and trade policy evolve from one essential consideration: the promotion and safeguarding of American interests. We should never place this element in jeopardy for the purpose of appeasing foreign entities or allies. Diplomacy does not mean surrender.
* Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Florida is chair of the House Subcommittee on International Economic Policy and Trade.