Cuba orchestrates protest of measure in Congress


NEW YORK -- The Cuban government, alarmed that a bill in the U.S. Congress would allow Cuban-Americans to lay new claims to property abandoned or seized when the Communists took power in 1959, is planning a series of huge public meetings in Havana and other cities to drum up opposition, the president of Cuba's National Assembly has disclosed.

The official, Ricardo Alarcon, a former foreign minister of Cuba and now its chief negotiator with Washington in immigration talks, said the congressional effort could severely worsen already bad relations with the United States.

Mr. Alarcon said the bill could produce more illegal immigration, but he denied that Cuba would use the meetings to promote a new wave of migration in retaliation.

The bill, which would also tighten a trade embargo, is sponsored by Sen. Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

A companion bill, sponsored by GOP Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, has been introduced in the House.

The European Union and Canada have protested to congressional leaders, saying the bill would put improper pressure on other countries with business in Cuba.

The public meetings will begin in Havana on May 3 and continue indefinitely, Mr. Alarcon said in an interview Friday at the Cuban Mission to the United Nations in New York.

"We in the National Assembly are organizing public hearings, but not the kind of public hearings that you may have in the House or the Senate," he said.

"We are going to do this on a massive scale throughout the entire country.

"We want every Cuban to know very well the law. We'll make Helms very popular, and this law will be the best-known document in Cuba."

Mr. Alarcon is to attend talks beginning Tuesday on the progress of an immigration agreement signed with the United States in September that allows 20,000 Cubans to enter this country legally, in the hope of deterring a new influx of boat people as the Cuban economy worsens.

"This law specifically and concretely affects everybody in a manner we never imagined before," Mr. Alarcon said.

"If this passes, you will have to face a reaction from many quarters."

He denied the public gatherings could provoke fears that would lead to a new exodus of Cubans, condoned if not encouraged by the government.

"There is no such threat," he said. "But at the same time, we have always said that the embargo is the main factor that encourages or creates in certain sectors of our society a desire to emigrate."

More than 22,000 Cubans remain in United States custody at the American military base at Guantanamo, after President Clinton last year changed the policy that allowed all Cubans to be granted asylum.

Mr. Alarcon said: "This bill intends to make life more difficult for Cubans. The bill doesn't intend to abandon the blockade, but to strengthen it.

"I cannot deny that if the embargo is the main factor provoking the desire to emigrate, then the strengthening of the embargo should strengthen that factor."

Cuban officials are concerned that the Helms bill will, in its final form, include a property-claim clause more sweeping than they have had to face before, Mr. Alarcon said.

He added that this could "fundamentally" alter relations for years to come and affect many more Cubans.

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