As the Senate's harshest critic of Cuba's Communist dictatorship, the North Carolina Republican senator has won rave reviews from an enthusiastic audience -- the circle of prosperous businessmen within Miami's Cuban-American community.
In the process, Mr. Helms has added a new element to his nationwide conservative support network and unearthed a potentially lucrative source of cash for his re-election race next year.
But he has raised eyebrows for helping out a special-interest group -- Cuban-Americans looking for help in recouping property they lost when Fidel Castro seized power in 1959.
Mr. Helms' office did not respond to requests for an interview with the senator. A Helms spokesman, Marc Thiessen, declined to comment on the relationship between his boss and the Cuban-American business community.
Traditionally, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a post Mr. Helms assumed in January when the GOP took control of Congress, becomes a major voice on foreign policy matters. But Mr. Helms has been consistently upstaged on international affairs by two Republican presidential candidates, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas and Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana.
Even well-chronicled efforts by Mr. Helms to scale back U.S. foreign aid and reorganize the State Department have been seen as mere ripples in the tide of budget-cutting set in motion by congressional Republicans.
But when it comes to Cuba, Mr. Helms is anything but a bit player. A fierce, career-long anti-Communist, he is a natural leader of a sizable coterie of lawmakers from both parties who want to tighten the economic noose on Cuba in hopes of forcing Fidel Castro from power after 35 years.
Mr. Helms' major weapon is a measure, co-sponsored with Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, that would strengthen the U.S. embargo against Cuba and counteract the regime's new efforts to attract foreign investment. Senate hearings on the bill begin today.
Although the Clinton administration opposes key sections of the legislation, it has not yet confronted Mr. Helms directly.
Indeed, Radio Marti, a 10-year-old radio station run by the federal government that broadcasts to Cuba even allowed Mr. Helms on May 11 to deliver a six-minute "message to the Cuban people," as the station described it.
In his speech, simultaneously translated into Spanish, the senator said the purpose of his bill was "to help you bring an end to Castro's tyranny."
Critics of the measure say it will fail to meet this objective and instead will give Mr. Castro a new reason to blame the United States for the miserable state of Cuba's economy. They cite increasing evidence, including a new study prepared for the Pentagon, showing that Mr. Castro's hold on power is as strong as ever.
What the bill will do, critics say, is benefit a group of once-powerful landowners and industrialists who lost their property to the Castro revolution.
More specifically, the legislation would allow former Cuban business owners who fled Cuba and became U.S. citizens after Mr. Castro took power to sue in U.S. courts to prevent the sale or utilization of their property and deny entrance to the United States of anyone who uses it.
U.S. companies and individuals that lost large holdings in Cuba already have won a measure of protection through existing laws that require the U.S. government to seek compensation for or return of the property from Cuba before resuming any U.S. aid.
This is a moot point now, because the United States has no intention of providing aid to Cuba until the Castro regime adopts democracy or President Castro leaves power or dies. But it could become important in the post-Castro era.
But Cubans whose property was confiscated during the days of the revolution have no such protection, even if they have since become U.S. citizens.
This group includes the growers, sugar mill owners, cattle ranchers and distillers who were among Cuba's wealthiest citizens before the revolution. Many have since prospered anew in the United States. Now naturalized U.S. citizens, they have found their way to Mr. Helms' staff.
Ignacio Sanchez, an attorney for a law firm that represents the Bacardi rum-making and importing firm, says he helped Helms aides draft the section of the bill relating to property claims. He says he did so in his capacity as a member of the American Bar Association's Cuban Property Rights Task Force, not as a representative of Bacardi.
But Juan Prado, a retired Bacardi executive who remains a consultant to the firm, acknowledges that Bacardi would be a prime beneficiary if the Helms bill became law. Bacardi's owners lost Cuban property worth $76 million, estimated in 1960 dollars, after the Cuban revolution, according to Mr. Prado.
Another Miami lawyer who helped draft the legislation was Nicolas Gutierrez, a Cuban-American who is also a board member of the National Association of Sugar Mill Owners of Cuba. The association represents former owners of many of the 161 sugar mills that played a major role in the Cuban economy before the revolution. His own family lost 100,000 acres, Mr. Gutierrez says.
Potential beneficiaries of the bill are not shy about showing their gratitude to Mr. Helms.
"He's a god," Mr. Gutierrez said, describing the attitude of Cuban-Americans toward the senator.
Bacardi executives, in fact, joined Jorge Mas Canosa, who heads the Cuban-American National Foundation, a high-powered conservative lobbying organization, in sponsoring a fund-raising lunch for Mr. Helms in Miami on April 17 that grossed more than $75,000.
Gary Jarmin, chairman of the U.S.-Cuba Foundation, which supports an end to the U.S. embargo of Cuba, attacked the bill during a briefing Friday, saying it was designed "to protect certain business interests that have property they lost in Cuba."
Referring to the Bacardi connection in an interview, he said, "It seems to me this bill has more to do with advancing libation that liberty." A longtime lobbyist, Mr. Jarmin counts himself as a conservative ally of Mr. Helms on other issues.
The Miami fund-raiser was a drop in the bucket for the Helms re-election effort, which in the past has been among the most expensive Senate campaigns in the country. In 1990, the senator spent $17 million.
But J. C. D. "Jack" Bailey, campaign treasurer, says of the Cuban-emigre community, "For Senator Helms, it will be one of the important sources we will tap." The Helms campaign is now in the black after ending last year in debt, he said, but it recognizes the 1996 race will be "expensive." In the past, the senator has relied on out-of state contributions for a major portion of of his campaign war chest.
Mr. Bailey said he expects Cuban-Americans to be unusually generous in response to direct-mail appeals -- a big source of Mr. Helms' campaign funding in the past.
In addition to building its own emigre donor list, Mr. Bailey said, the campaign will probably get names from established Cuban-American organizations.
Describing the enthusiastic response to Mr. Helms among Cuban-Americans in Miami, he said: "I've never seen anything to equal it."