Hill committee, Clinton OK new Cuba sanctions Compromise measure would hurt Castro by curbing investment; Leader 'is on the ropes'; Bill would punish firms with interest in confiscated property


WASHINGTON -- Driven largely by the downing of two civilian American planes by the Cuban military, congressional negotiators and the White House agreed yesterday on a package of sanctions intended to punish President Fidel Castro by curbing foreign investment in Cuba.

The measure, which President Clinton had opposed until this week, would give the weight of law to the nearly 40-year-old embargo against Cuba that has been the policy of every U.S. president since Mr. Castro came to power. That would prevent any president from acting on his own, as Mr. Clinton has in the past, to loosen or tighten sanctions as relations with Cuba change.

But the package, the most tangible American reaction yet to the downing of the planes Saturday, also includes more potent provisions, which supporters said would deter foreign investment in Cuba and thus hasten the downfall of an already ailing regime.

One of those provisions would deny visas to anyone -- corporate officers, principals, controlling shareholders -- with a stake in a property confiscated in the 1959 Cuban revolution from someone who is now a U.S. citizen. A senior Clinton administration official said billions of dollars' worth of property now controlled by foreign companies in Cuba could be affected.

"I don't expect our allies will be pleased with this legislation, but we believe it advances an important part of our foreign policy," a senior administration official said.

Another provision would allow U.S. citizens whose property was confiscated by the Castro government to file suit in the United States against any foreign company using that property. But in a concession to win the support of the Clinton administration, it would give the president the right to waive that rule every six months to keep the courts from being choked with lawsuits.

No other nation observes the U.S. embargo against Cuba. Canadian, Mexican and French companies, among others, have sizable investments there. Canada, for example, imports about $225 million in Cuban goods a year and sends Cuba about $160 million worth of Canadian goods. Canada is expected to challenge the policy under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Only last summer, Secretary of State Warren Christopher recommended that Mr. Clinton veto this bill. But Cuba's downing of the unarmed planes put enormous political pressure on the president to act decisively. Mr. Clinton narrowly lost Florida to President George Bush in 1992, and the state is considered a key battleground in this election year.

On Monday, Mr. Clinton imposed limited sanctions against the Cuban government, closing off charter air routes, restricting the movements of Cuban diplomats in the United States and expanding the broadcasting range of Radio Marti, the government-supported anti-Castro radio network.

But Mr. Clinton's actions were roundly criticized as weak and ineffective by some Cuban-American leaders, congressional Republicans and nearly all of the Republican presidential contenders. And when Congress reconvened Tuesday after a nearly monthlong recess, supporters of the stronger bill moved immediately to revive it.

Most of the corporate giants in the United States, as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Association of Exporters and Importers, oppose the measure.

"What we hear from the CEOs is they feel the legislation will make it impossible for U.S. companies to develop a position within the Cuban market while providing more opportunities for companies in other countries," said John S. Kavulick, president of the United States-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, which represents more than 100 companies.

Other officials said that the manufacturer of Bacardi rum, which had vast holdings in Cuba before the Castro-led revolution, lobbied heavily for the measure.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, general chairman of the Democratic Party, said: "The heart of this bill is special-interest legislation par excellence."

But Rep. Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey, the senior Democrat on the International Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said the measure "makes continued foreign investment by multinational corporations in Cuba very unlikely."

Backers of the legislation touted it as the tool that would drive Mr. Castro from office after 36 years in power.

"He is on the ropes," said Rep. Dan Burton, a Republican from Indiana and a co-sponsor of the bill. "I think this is the last nail in his coffin."

A jubilant Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the other co-sponsor of the bill, said: "I have one message for Mr. Castro today -- Adios, Fidel."

The sponsors said that the conference bill would be brought to the floors of the Senate and the House within the next few days and sent to the White House by early next week.

Mr. Clinton has indicated that he will sign the legislation, which is known formally as the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act but more commonly referred to as the Helms-Burton Act.

Opponents argue that in their haste to punish Mr. Castro, supporters of the bill are turning Washington's policy on Cuba in the wrong direction.

"We seem to have lost sight of the national interest and how best to promote it," said Rep. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana, senior Democrat on the House International Relations Committee.

He said that if the legislation is approved it would isolate the Cuban people and "increase the risk of violent upheaval, and increase the risk of a massive flow of refugees to U.S. shores."

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