For more than three decades the United States has embargoed Cuba in an unsuccessful effort to force Fidel Castro from power. Last year, in the wake of Cuba's brutal shoot-down of private US planes in international air space, Congress passed the Helms-Burton law, which tightened economic sanctions. Opponents feared it would hurt the Cuban people, not Castro. A year's experience shows they were right. Helms-Burton has helped Castro, weakened his opponents, brought more misery to ordinary Cubans, and damaged relations with our closest allies and trading partners. We need a new policy to promote a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba.
Helms-Burton's reach. The Helms-Burton law tightens the noose on Cuba in two key ways. First, it grants US citizens the right to bring suit in US courts against foreign companies that have invested in or profited from expropriated properties in Cuba. (President Clinton has delayed the effect of this provision.) Second, the law bars from the US officers, principals, and shareholders (and their families) of any company that invests in expropriated property in Cuba. This sharply limits contact between the US and Cuban people.
Helms-Burton is supposed to move Cuba toward democracy by isolating Cuba. Rather than promoting peaceful change in Cuba, however, the law hurts the Cuban people. It even helps keep Castro in power: Using the law as justification, Castro has cracked down on journalists and dissidents, solidifying his own position while suppressing the opposition. Cuba's dissidents refer derisively to it as the Helms-Burton-Castro Act.
Helms-Burton also gives Castro a new scapegoat for his economic failures. It eases pressure on him to open up the state-run economy. Modest reforms in Cuba before Helms-Burton have since been stymied. Cuba is not moving toward democracy and free markets - it is moving in the opposite direction.
Humanitarian impact. The embargo, tightened in the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act and codified and reaffirmed in Helms-Burton, has had a damaging effect on the health of the Cuban people. Licensing requirements and outright prohibitions of sales to Cuba have drastically limited Cuban access to US-produced medicines and medical equipment. According to recent studies, the health of women and children in particular has suffered because Cubans cannot obtain medicines.
Donations from the American people - who donate more to Cuba than anyone in the world - are also inhibited by current US policy. Humanitarian missions to Cuba must fly through third countries. US citizens cannot send prescriptions or money to family members in Cuba without an export license. It cannot serve US interests to inhibit provision of humanitarian supplies to Cubans who are so clearly in need.
Rifts in relations. No other country observes the US embargo of Cuba. While Helms-Burton was intended to isolate Castro, it has isolated the US, creating rifts with our closest allies. The European Union (EU), Latin America, and Canada have condemned Helms-Burton. All object to extraterritorial application of US law, under which their citizens and companies are subject to penalty in the US for their actions in Cuba. Canada and Mexico - our nearest neighbors and first and third largest trading partners - are considering a case against the US under NAFTA.
Helms-Burton also spurred a challenge to the US in the new World Trade Organization (WTO). The US has persuaded the EU to back away from a WTO case for now and seeks to resolve the dispute through direct negotiations. If talks fail, Helms-Burton proponents want the US to walk away by arguing Helms-Burton is a national security matter over which the WTO has no jurisdiction. This approach would weaken the international trading system, which benefits the US, and set a dangerous precedent: Any country could cite national security to justify protectionism.
Rethinking Cuba policy. The US should learn from its successful engagement with Eastern Europe. Communist regimes there fell not because they were isolated but because they were penetrated by people, new ideas, and commerce. Our policy of engagement with China is based on this view. The Pope, who will travel to Cuba early next year, is right to engage the Cuban people directly, as he did the people of Eastern Europe. He is not trying to isolate them or coerce them. Washington would be wise to follow his example.
We should repeal Helms-Burton, restart direct flights, lift travel and currency restrictions, and begin exchanges, dialogue, and humanitarian relief. Step by step, we should lift the embargo in response to positive change in Cuba. This is the surest way to bring peaceful, democratic change to Cuba.
* Lee H. Hamilton (D) of Indiana is ranking minority member on the House International Relations Committee.