US threat to bar bosses with Cuban connections

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The Independent Online
The US State Department has drafted letters to senior executives from leading Canadian, Mexican and European companies, possibly including at least one British firm, warning them that they may be barred from entering the US for doing business with Cuba.

The move will be the first formal US action to comply with the so-called Helms-Burton law, signed by President Bill Clinton in February. Mr Clinton changed tack on the Republican-proposed bill after Cuban fighter planes shot down two US light aircraft flown by anti-Castro Cuban Americans in the Straits of Florida.

Under the law, companies doing business in Cuba, mainly Canadian, Mexican and European - including British firms such as tobacco giant BAT and sugar traders ED and F Man - could later be ordered to give up their holdings in Cuba or face charges in the US.

There was no indication which, if any, UK executives would be among those to receive the first warning letters but US officials suggested the list would include at least one senior European boss.

Speculation in Cuban American exiles suggested Benetton of Italy was the most likely target. The company has opened several stores on the Caribbean island since Cuban leader Fidel Castro opened up his economy to foreign investment. Cuban exiles in Miami say Benetton's offices are on property owned by Cuban exiles but were confiscated by Mr Castro after his 1959 revolution.

Under the Helms-Burton law, aimed at tightening the screws on Mr Castro's communist regime by discouraging foreign investment, the original owners can sue in US courts for the return of their property.

The European Union, Canada and Mexico have strongly attacked the law as incompatible with free trading policies.

US officials, quoted in the Miami Herald newspaper, said the State Department would send out the letters to leading executives within days, warning them they or their families may be refused visas, even for holidays.

The best-known bosses named by officials included Lorenzo Zambrano, billionaire head of the Mexican cement firm Cemex.