WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Stepping back from a pitched battle that threatened the global trading system, the White House agreed yesterday to put tough new anti-Cuba sanctions on ice and negotiate with Europe over how best to promote democracy and human rights in Havana.
In exchange, the 15-nation European Union promised to suspend its suit before the World Trade Organization. The EU, which claimed the United States overstepped its bounds last year when it imposed anti-Cuba sanctions affecting non-U.S. companies, was scheduled for a hearing Monday.
U.S. and EU officials agreed to begin talks aimed at developing, by Oct. 15, a joint strategy for helping to promote change in communist Cuba, said Commerce Undersecretary Stuart E. Eizenstat.
U.S. negotiators want Europeans to support at least some U.S. sanctions, a goal strongly resisted by countries doing business with Cuba.
In a statement released in Brussels, EU Trade Commissioner Sir Leon Brittan said the EU reserved the right to resurrect the suit unless the United States weakens the sanctions.
"There's going to be some hard bargaining ahead," Eizenstat told reporters. For the moment, however, yesterday's agreement gives "some breathing space" to both parties, he said, averting the Monday showdown.
"It is critical that the U.S. and the EU work together, and not at cross purposes," Eizenstat said at a press conference, hours after the noon accord ended a week of intensive negotiations between U.S. and EU trade officials. "This understanding provides the mechanism to do so."
Yesterday's deal heads off, for now at least, a fracas that had divided the United States from some of its closest trading partners, the Canadians and the European Union, an economic alliance among Europe's major powers.
At issue is the Helms-Burton Act, anti-Cuba sanctions legislation co-written by Sen. Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican, and Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican., and signed into law by President Clinton last year. It was passed after Cuban warplanes flying near Havana shot down two unarmed civilian aircraft based in Miami.
The Helms-Burton sanctions allow American citizens who had property or assets seized by the Cuban government to sue in U.S. courts any foreign company currently using those assets. The U.S. government recognizes 5,911 claims by U.S. citizens against Cuba, which expropriated vast property and commercial holdings after Fidel Castro's 1959 communist revolution.
U.S. companies are prohibited from dealing with Cuba, under sanctions dating to a 1962 embargo. Much of the property Castro seized, however, has since been sold to companies based in Europe, Canada or Latin America.
The Helms-Burton Act also requires that the United States refuse entry visas to executives in companies trafficking in property Cuba confiscated from anyone who is now an American citizen.
So far, about 12 visas have been revoked from such individuals.
The sanctions have roiled relations between the United States and its European and Canadian trading partners, who contend that the sanctions unfairly target their companies and are an effort to impose Washington's will on other nations.
Under yesterday's accord, the White House will not permit lawsuits against non-U.S. companies to go forward, though U.S. visas will continue to be denied to certain overseas business executives in accordance with the Helms-Burton law.
The White House will, however, seek an amendment to the Helms-Burton law to allow Clinton to waive the visa restrictions.
Backers of Helms-Burton said yesterday that they are willing to hold off on full implementation of the law temporarily, in hopes that the Europeans and Canadians will adopt their own laws that mesh with the U.S. law.
"They have blinked and agreed to carefully explore instituting these critical American principles into international law," Sen. Paul Coverdell, a Georgia Republican, said through a spokesman.
If EU negotiators refuse to protect American holders of claims against Cuba, Coverdell said, the Senate will not approve changes in Helms-Burton but would, instead, insist on its full implementation. "This is in no way ratifying or approving the results of discussions yet to occur," said Coverdell, a Helms-Burton backer who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.
Pub Date: 4/12/97