Clinton presses ahead with Cuban sanctions

RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

Driven by domestic politics rather than any concern for the niceties of international law, the Clinton administration will press ahead with the toughest United States sanctions yet on Cuba, ignoring a flood of angry protests from its own allies and trading partners.

After the overwhelming, veto-proof passage of the so-called "Liberdad bill" in both House and Senate this week, President Clinton has made clear he will sign the bill quickly, despite White House unease at several of its provisions - notably the clause allowing foreign companies and investors who deal with property in Cuba confiscated by the Castro regime to be sued in American courts, and in some cases to be barred from doing business in the US.

Those provisions have been denounced as blatantly illegal by the European Union which has made a formal demarche to the State Department setting out its objections. The EU, which has convened a meeting of member-country trade officials in Brussels today, warns that the confiscation provision will cause "legal chaos", and is threatening to take the matter to the World Trade Organisation in Geneva.

Canada and Mexico, two partners of the US in the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) - and long- standing critics of Washington's belligerent stance towards Cuba - have reacted no less strongly, warning they might instigate action to have the entire measure thrown out by the courts.

Mr Clinton can, in theory, impose a six-month waiver on the confiscation clause. But he is unlikely to do so now, and certainly will not do so in six months' time when the presidential race will be nearing its climax. In the heated, scarcely rational, US debate over Cuba, the bottom line is that 1996 is an election year, in which Florida is the fourth biggest prize after California, Texas and New York. Though Florida normally votes Republican for the Presidency, the Democrats reckon this time they have a chance. Neither party therefore can be seen as "soft on Cuba" in a state where 1 million plus militantly anti-Castro Cuban-Americans are the most powerful single voting bloc.

Campaigning in Florida yesterday, Senator Bob Dole, the Republican frontrunner for the White House, demanded that the pilots of the Cuban MiGs which shot down the two Cessna light aircraft last month should be tried for murder. As for the complaining foreign countries, "They know what they are getting into," said Congressman Dan Burton of Indiana, a sponsor of the Liberdad bill. "They must choose between doing business with Cuba or the United States."

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