WHAT IS IT that causes so many U.S. policy makers and members of Congress to disconnect from reality when it comes to Cuba? Something in the water inside the Beltway? Or in the Straits of Florida?
Whatever the cause, the phenomenon has manifested itself again in legislation presented by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., Rep. Robert G. Torricelli, D-N.J., and a phalanx of like-minded co-sponsors. Their bill calls on President Clinton to pressure other countries to join the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
But even our closest allies in NATO refused to join the embargo at the height of the Cold War. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that they -- or any other country -- will do so now the Cold War is over. On the contrary, on this issue, the United States is embarrassingly isolated. Last November, more than 100 countries condemned the embargo in the U.N. General Assembly. Only Israel voted with the United States -- and it trades with Cuba! President Francois Mitterrand, who played host to Fidel Castro in Paris last week, derided the embargo against Cuba as "stupid."
The embargo's very legality is open to question. The United States just ratified the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and became part of the World Trade Organization. Cuba is also a full member. Thus, the embargo is impermissible -- for one member cannot take such measures against another except under extraordinary circumstances that do not exist in this case.
Nor is GATT the only international agreement U.S. policy infringes on. The Inter-American Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States has just warned the United States that including food and medicine in trade embargoes is a violation of international law and called on it to see that those commodities are exempt.
The Helms legislation flies in the face of all that -- and in the face of U.S. professions of belief in free trade. Dozens of countries are now actively investing in and trading with Cuba. They bitterly resent U.S. attempts to interfere. As one European diplomat in Washington said last week, "We are fed up with your Cuban obsession and your efforts to force it upon us."
Baroness Young, of Britain's Conservative Party, recently in Washington after leading a British trade delegation to Havana, could only shake her head in disbelief when told of the Helms bill and warn, "It cannot but cause serious problems between our two governments."
It will certainly cause serious problems with many other governments. In addition to new sanctions against foreign companies that trade with Cuba, the legislation would deny U.S. visas to certain company executives, and, for good measure, to their wives and children.
In trying to punish those who have benefited from trade with Cuba, it will open the way to thousands of lawsuits that could snarl economic ties with some countries for years.
None of this will do vital harm to Cuba. Certainly, it will not bring about Mr. Castro's ouster -- any more than Mr. Torricelli's earlier Cuban Democracy Act did. He asserted then, in late 1992, that Mr. Castro would fall within weeks. He was wrong at that time, and is more so now -- for despite increased U.S. pressure, the Cuban economy is beginning to recover. A combination of liberalizing economic reforms, rising sugar and nickel prices, expansion of the tourist industry and increased foreign investment has enabled it to turn a corner over the past six months. Collapse is not in the cards. Nothing in the Helms legislation will change that.
Nor will it promote democracy and human rights in Cuba -- as some proponents argue. To the contrary, the Cuban Catholic bishops, the Ecumenical Council and many of the island's human-rights activists say, if that is the goal, Washington should move in the opposite direction -- toward lifting the embargo and relaxing tensions. Indeed, in the cases of China, Vietnam and other countries that are not democratic and have human-rights problems, the administration argues that the best way to improve the situation is through trade, dialogue and expanded contacts. If that is true of the others, why not of Cuba? The administration can't say.
Still, no matter how illogical, the Helms legislation could pass. Many legislators will treat it as nothing more than a safe anti-Castro vote -- while the administration is in a painful dilemma of its own making. The legislation will cause serious international complications, but the administration's own rhetoric and actions created the conditions for the bill's introduction. It supported the Cuban Democracy Act, the precursor to the Helms bill; curried favor with the same right-wing elements of the Cuban American community who are behind the current bill and struck postures on Cuba that coincided with theirs.
To oppose the current legislation, the administration would have to reverse course and take on the ultraconservative Cuban American lobby as well as Mr. Helms. If it summons up the courage to do so, the administration would find allies on both sides of the aisle -- many Republicans and Democrats alike have grave reservations about the consequences of this legislation for U.S. business and for our place in the world.
At issue beyond Cuba is Washington's claim to responsible leadership in the post-Cold War era. Passage of the Helms legislation would undermine that claim and depict us as a country prepared to violate international law and precedent in pursuit of what the rest of the world sees as an irrational Cold War obsession. We can hardly call on other countries to play by the rules if we flagrantly ignore them.
Passage would also close the door on normalization or even improved relations with Cuba. And, finally, it would leave American businesses standing indefinitely on the sidelines watching foreign competitors walk away with all the action. No wonder Ms. Young was shaking her head!
Wayne S. Smith is the former chief of the U.S. interests section in Havana. He is a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University and a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.