HOUSE EXPECTED TO APPROVE CUBA BILL MEASURE WIELDS PROPERTY RIGHTS AS TRADE TOOL

HOUSE EXPECTED TO APPROVE CUBA BILL MEASURE WIELDS PROPERTY RIGHTS AS TRADE TOOL

The House today is expected to pass a bill aimed at dampening foreign investment in Cuba and stiffening the U.S. trade embargo against the Castro government.

The so-called Helms-Burton bill - the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act of 1995 - attempts to use property rights as a tool to refocus U.S. trade policy and economic power on toppling the Castro government."It is now the endgame - I hope and pray - for Fidel Castro and communist Cuba," said Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., the leading House sponsor of the bill and chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the International Relations Committee.

The bill raises an overall policy question about the value of further attempts to isolate Cuba, and a host of thorny legal questions about establishing a right of claims in U.S. courts against property in Cuba.

Action in the Senate, where the bill is sponsored by Sen. Jesse Helms, R- N.C., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is expected soon. Sen. Helms might offer it as an amendment to the foreign aid money bill on the Senate floor.

The bill's passage would present President Clinton with a dilemma. Signing it would anger Cuban President Fidel Castro, who recently reached an agreement with the administration to stop the exodus of refugees from Cuba to the United States. A veto would risk angering the Cuban-American community in Florida, potentially damaging Mr. Clinton's re-election chances.

Nevertheless, the administration is opposed to the bill. House Democrats were awaiting a letter Wednesday from Secretary of Defense William Perry and Secretary of State Warren Christopher that was expected to warn congressional leaders of a possible veto.

"This is quite an extreme bill in my point of view," said Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, D-Ind., the ranking minority member on International Relations.

"This bill increases the pressure on Cuba and increases the possibility the lid will blow off violently. I don't think it's in our national interest to provoke a more severe crisis in Cuba," Rep. Hamilton said. Instead, the U.S. should be seeking to open Cuba to democracy through engagement.

The core provision of the bill would give U.S. citizens a right to file claims in U.S. federal court asserting property rights in Cuba. Because most real property in Cuba has been confiscated by the Castro government, the effect would be to establish a legal threat in U.S. courts to any foreign investor from another country - Mexico for example - that buys or leases land, buildings or factories in Cuba in cooperation with the government. The intent is to undermine Mr. Castro's effort to entice foreign investment capital in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had supported the Cuban economy at an estimated rate of $4 billion annually.

MEASURE WAS TONED DOWN

At the insistence of House trade leaders on the Ways and Means Committee, the bill has been toned down since it was reported by International Relations. A section imposing a secondary embargo on Cuban sugar exports to other nations - language that might have triggered U.S. trade sanctions against Canada or the United Kingdom, for example - was dropped from the bill.

"I'm very much a free trader and one who believes exposing other nations to Western values undermines repressive regimes," said Rep. David Dreier, R- Calif., a member of the House Rules Committee, who praised the change during a committee debate Tuesday previewing the upcoming floor action.

Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., who represents parts of Miami and is a leading House proponent of the bill, said: "We are not trying to dictate to the rest of the world - that would be extraterritoriality and we cannot do that."

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said the bill is aimed at quashing the flow of foreign investment capital from Mexico, South America, Europe and Japan to Cuba only until democratic reforms are achieved.

Calling the Castro government a "totalitarian regime" and Cubans an ''oppressed people," Rep. Ros-Lehtinen said the bill "sends a signal to Castro the United States Congress will not stand by his oppressive brand of politics."

Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said the bill supports a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba and protects property rights of U.S. citizens, violated long ago and now being traded away cheaply by the Cuban government to attract foreign investment. Rep. Menendez said the bill would prevent the Cuban government from generating hard currency.

IS THIS THE TIME?

But Democrats argue now is not the moment for the United States to seek further isolation of Cuba solely because of Castro, a tactic other nations have already rejected in favor of openness and expanding trade.

"I think Mr. Castro might slide more into oblivion, where he belongs, if we stop giving him reasons to give people for whatever reason - not because they are communist but because they are nationalist - to stand with him against us," said Rep. Anthony C. Beilensen, D-Calif., a Rules member.

House members in support of the bill, however, are influenced by the recent refugee crisis involving Haiti and Cuba that required massive intervention by the U.S. Coast Guard with support from the military.

"I've been hearing in my district a threat that if this passes . . . Castro is threatening to release waves of boat people," Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., said.

"He has used people, he has used Cubans against us. Refugees. And he has been ruthless. We have used our weapon, the embargo, against him, but it's not strong enough," Rep. Goss said.

'RECALCITRANCE' SEEN

Rep. Burton said: "The argument would be made that we would have more success with Castro if we were to open up trade with Cuba. But both Mr. Castro and his brother Raul have said, 'It's socialism or death.' So it's not like so many other countries that we're doing business with in the recalcitrance that's there."

Saying the bill is likely to hurt the Cuban people more than the Castro government, opponents are warning the measure would hurt trade relationships elsewhere.

"It's clearly going to damage our relationship with Europe, Canada, Japan and Mexico. I've had a stream of ambassadors coming in to tell me about their concerns," Rep. Hamilton said.

He said the bill would violate the North American Free Trade Agreement and would set up an unworkable claims process in U.S. federal courts, including an unenforceable mechanism for excluding from the United States certain foreign business people who are doing business in Cuba.

In addition to establishing a property rights claim, the bill seeks to tighten existing terms of the U.S. embargo against Cuba and adds financial sanctions against former Soviet bloc states.

"There are many people who are trying to find a way to drive a truck through these sanctions," Rep. Diaz-Balart said.