The new Cuba policy announced by President Donald Trump makes it clear the president will be looking to the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 — also known as the Helms-Burton Act — in forging his new take on Cuba.
“Our new policy begins with strictly enforcing U.S. law,” Trump said Friday during a Miami appearance to announce a policy that bans most U.S. business dealings with the Cuban military and puts some limits on travel. “We will enforce the embargo.”
Former President Barack Obama seemed more intent on what he could legally do on Cuba policy despite the Helms -Burton Act, which among other things sets strict conditions that must be met by Cuba before the U.S. embargo against the island can be lifted. Before he left office, Obama urged Congress to change the law to lift the embargo
In his memo on the new policy, Trump expressed support for the embargo, including opposing any measures at the United Nations or other international institutions calling for the end of the embargo, which has been in effect for more than half a century.
In a signal of Obama’s desire to repair the United States’ fractured relationship with Cuba, the U.S. abstained for the first time in October 2016 on the annual U.N. General Assembly vote condemning the embargo. Before, the United States always voted against the U.N. resolution.
In his last month in office, Obama also suspended a section of the Helms-Burton Act that allows former owners of commercial properties expropriated by Cuba to sue foreign companies trafficking in those confiscated holdings.
Every U.S. president has routinely suspended the lawsuit provision every six months since Helms-Burton went into effect for fear of letting the lawsuits go forward. The suits would alienate important trading partners such as Canada and EU countries whose citizens have invested in Cuba. It’s unclear if Trump will continue the practice.
Put forward in the super-heated atmosphere after Cuba shot down two Brothers to the Rescue planes, resulting in the deaths of four South Florida pilots, the 42-page Helms-Burton bill was signed into law in 1996 by President Bill Clinton.
Previously it was up to presidential discretion whether to lift the embargo, but Helms-Burton set up a range of conditions that must be satisfied before the embargo can be lifted.
It sets a high bar for Cuba. Among the conditions a transition government in Cuba must meet are: legalization of all political activity; release of all political prisoners; dissolution of the present Department of State Security — including the Committees for Defense of the Revolution; a public commitment to organize free and fair elections for a new government that will be held in a period not to exceed 18 months; stopping any interference with Radio or TV Martí broadcasts; and establishment of an independent judiciary and independent trade unions.
And any new government cannot include Raúl Castro or Fidel Castro, now a moot point. In addition, civil liberties must be respected, private property rights must be assured and steps must be taken to compensate U.S. citizens and corporations for properties seized by the Cuban government after the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
During Congressional testimony last week, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the administration was in support of continued economic development in Cuba “as long as it’s done in full compliance with our existing statutes to not provide financial support to the regime.”
Pressed by Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, about whether that could hamper development of private businesses in Cuba “if they give a single dime to the government,” Tillerson responded: “Senator, I know you’re not suggesting that we encourage private companies to violate the law, but it does require perhaps a more thorough discussion among the Congress and the executive [branch] over is that law still useful. But the law is there and we cannot encourage people to violate that law.”
In May, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers introduced legislation to lift the embargo. A bill to lift all restrictions on travel to Cuba, and one that would remove restrictions on private financing of agricultural exports to Cuba and impose a 2 percent tax to compensate those who have certified claims for seized properties also have been introduced. If Congress were to pass any of that legislation, said South Florida lawyer Pedro Freyre, it would supercede any executive order by the president on Cuba.
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi