Cuba embargo intact, yet could be tweaked
Castro's resignation makes no dent in the U.S. embargo against Cuba,
enshrined in the 1996 Helms-Burton law. But opponents may begin to
whittle away at the sanctions.
Posted on Thu, Feb. 21, 2008
BY JANE BUSSEY
ANA LENSE LARRAURI/MIAMI HERALD FILE
Fidel Castro's quiet exit from the Cuban political stage may pave the
way for opponents of the trade embargo against Cuba to chip away at
economic sanctions against Cuba. However, lifting it outright will prove
Castro's retirement as the president of Cuba's Council of State doesn't
meet any of the lengthy and precise conditions outlined in the 1996
Helms-Burton legislation for improving economic relations with Cuba.
''The legislation is in place and will be in place with this
administration,'' said Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for
Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. “This
administration will not change until Cuba changes.''
The law, passed in an election year and in the aftermath of Cuba's 1996
shoot-down of two Brothers to the Rescue planes that ended in four
deaths, formalized U.S. sanctions and detailed strict benchmarks Cuba
must meet before the sanctions, including the trade embargo, can be
relaxed or lifted. A key rationale for the law was also to make Cuba
settle U.S. claims for property confiscated decades ago.
The conditions for ending the embargo range from the big — proscribing
the presence of either Fidel or Raúl Castro in Cuban government — to
demanding that Havana support small business in exchange for easing
restrictions on remittances.
The U.S. president can only lift the embargo by certifying to Congress
that Cuba is in a transition to democracy — which entails another long
list of rules.
Helms-Burton essentially shifted control of the embargo from the
president to Congress.
The trade embargo was implemented piecemeal over the years. Washington
banned all Cuban imports in February 1962.
The sanctions were elevated into law 30 years later in the Torricelli
Act, also known as the Cuban Democracy Act. This legislation banned even
food and medicine shipments from the United States, outlawed U.S.
subsidiaries from doing business with Cuba and prevented ships that
docked in Cuba from entering U.S. ports for 180 days.
The Helms-Burton law imposed new restrictions and listed new goals,
including the exchange of news bureaus and requiring the president to
make an annual report to Congress on other countries trading with or
investing in Cuba. It also made it harder for some Cubans to get visas
to visit the United States.
Pedro A. Freyre, an Akerman Senterfitt lawyer in Miami, said there is
little likelihood that the embargo will be gone quickly because he saw
no signs Cuba would comply with the stipulations for democratic elections.
However, Freyre, who frequently speaks about the Helms-Burton law, said
there are many ways for the embargo to be tweaked, just as it was in
2000 when the ban on shipping food and medicine to Cuba ended.
''If you are going to see a legislative attack on the Torricelli [Act]
and Helms-Burton, I don't think it's going to be a frontal assault,''
Freyre said. “It's going to be guerrilla warfare.''
Ways of easing the embargo could include allowing U.S. financing of
agriculture sales to Cuba (Cuba has to pay upfront for shipments), more
family visits to the island and even lifting a ban on U.S. tourists
traveling to Cuba.
A new administration in the White House could return to ''constructive
engagement,'' with overtures to Havana if Cuba's government takes steps
such as releasing dissidents or legalizing some opposition movements,
But Freyre said that any cooperation would require careful orchestration
to build confidence between the two adversaries.
Some say that a first step for lessening the sanctions might be to avoid
dealing with the Helms-Burton law completely.
''It is easier to do away with the Torricelli Act than Helms-Burton,''
said Antonio R. Zamora, of counsel in the Miami office of Squire,
Sanders & Dempsey.
''Torricelli is much more specific,'' said Zamora, adding that lifting
the sanctions on ships could allow cruise ships to dock in Cuba. “With
the new Congress, I think there are going to be some changes.''
Freyre also said that times have changed for the two countries.
''For the first time in 50 years, Castro is not in power in Cuba and
this is an election year in the United States,'' Freyre said. “The
planets have aligned.''