CUBA EMBARGO: OFF THE MARK

Few bills are as counterproductive as the Cuban Democracy Act, which tightens the U.S. tradeembargo on Cuba by prohibiting foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies from trading with the island nation. The hope is that increased economic hardship will force Fidel Castro to adopt democratic reforms.

Like a high-powered weapon with a faulty sighting mechanism, the bill would leave a wide swath of damage both inside and outside the island, yet miss its target completely.Passed last week by the House of Representatives and a week earlier by the Senate, the bill would cause foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies to forfeit around $700 million worth of business. Companies that would be hurt include such household names as IBM, General Electric, Ford, Johnson & Johnson and Firestone Rubber.

The 30-year-old embargo originally prohibited all trade with Cuba, but U.S. allies protested the law's extra-territoriality and it was amended in 1975.

Last week's cancellation of that amendment has U.S. allies fuming. Canada has threatened to order American firms based there to disregard the ban, and the British government has stated it will oppose implementation of the law on its territory.

The bill also violates a 1975 resolution of the Organization of American States, which lifted collective sanctions against Cuba and permitted bilateral trade agreements. In addition, it runs counter to the principles of international commerce established by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

The rationale behind the bill is that the damage to U.S. business and foreign relations will be offset by the effect the upgraded embargo will have within Cuba. The Cuban people, already suffering from widespread shortages of food, gasoline, electricity and consumer products, theoretically will reach their breaking point. They will demand not only meat and potatoes - items now in limited supply - but a free press and multiparty elections.

The glitch in this reasoning is that it disregards the past two years of constant crisis. Since 1989, when disintegration of the socialist bloc led to cancellation of many of Cuba's trade and aid ties, the Cuban economy has contracted by more than 35 percent.

Food, transport and public utilities have been particularly hard hit. Cubans eat 300 fewer calories each day - roughly the equivalent of half a big Mac, a small scoop of Ben and Jerry's vanilla ice cream - or, by Cuban standards, a plate of mashed potatoes, which can form a large part of two daily meals.

When trade was first cut off in 1990 the impact was immediate and severe. Hospitals lost electric power, dental floss was used as surgical thread, vegetables disappeared from the markets and public buses stopped running regularly.

This summer, however, brought the first signs of a gradual recovery as the government's strategies for handling the crisis took hold.

Domestic feed production increased as investments in citrus and root crops paid off. Hospitals once again were stocked with basic medicines and supplies. Creative use of government vehicles meant that something - a bus, a truck, a private car, even a tractor - would pick up commuters at the bus stop and take them to work.

A pumped-up embargo would undoubtedly undermine this recovery. Trade with U.S. subsidiaries accounts for as much as 25 percent of Cuban imports at the current, sharply reduced levels. Provisions of the bill would make it harder to find other trading partners.

But crippling Cuba's recovery won't encourage democratic reforms. Leading Cuban dissidents have denounced the bill, saying it will only propel Cuban society closer to "starvation, deprivation of freedom and violence."

In a statement made the day of the House vote, the dissidents, among them the internationally respected Elizardo Sanchez, said they found it difficult to believe that "this policy of economic strangulation is inspired by a desire to improve the human rights situation in Cuba."

Economic hardship has already ignited an exodus of young, ambitious Cubans who see no future on the island - individuals who historically have formed the backbone of movements for democratic reform.

A study commissioned by the governor of Florida found that should Mr. Castro fall, the result would be a "rapid, chaotic, uncontrolled mass migration" to the United States.

Experts predict the numbers would far exceed the traumatic 1980 Mariel boat lift, in which 128,000 Cubans arrived within five months, straining Florida's social service network to the breaking point.

In the past two years, the Florida Coast Guard has rescued record numbers of "balseros," Cubans who flee the island on flimsy balsa wood rafts.

According to the Coast Guard, about one in four balseros drown, which means around 500 perished last year. As conditions on the island deteriorate and more Cubans brave the Florida Straits, that number will grow.

For congressmen, these deaths are just another unpleasant side-effect, similar to the knockout punch they are giving to subsidiaries of U.S. businesses and the arm-twisting of U.S. allies.

The bill they have passed adds more needless casualties to the battlefield of U.S.-Cuban relations when what is really needed is a cease-fire.

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