Washington, D.C.
May 22, 2001

Helms and Lieberman Introduce Cuban Solidarity Act

On Wednesday, May 17, Senators Jesse Helms (R-NC) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CN) introduced for legislative consideration the "Cuban Solidarity Act of 2001." Nine other Democratic and Republican Senators also signed on as initial co-sponsors of the bill, and it is likely that additional Senators will agree to sponsor the bill in coming weeks. As noted by Senator Helms in introductory remarks, the bill ". . . is a blueprint for a more vigorous U.S. policy to liberate the enslaved island of Cuba." The bill includes funding for $100 million of direct assistance to the Cuban people over a period of four years, along with provisions to support human rights, democratic institutions and Cuban small businesses. On May 19, two days after Senator Helms' announcement of the bill, President Bush met with 250 Cubans at the White House to give his support to this legislative effort.


One might assume that this bill is just an answer from the Bush Administration to Castro's recent overseas trips and continuing series of anti-American gestures. The bill may generate some spirited debate in the Senate before it moves forward to be combined with a similar bill in the House of Representatives. However, the bipartisan support for both bills (95 co-sponsors in the House), indicates that the Congress has built a foundation for legislation that may change the face of U.S. policy toward Cuba. Obviously the President agrees with this effort, but we can not attribute this indication of change in Cuban policy to the Bush administration alone. Given its nature and complexity, it would be a mistake to see the bill as just a "reward" from President Bush to Cuban-American voters for their support in the past election.

Interestingly, the bill calls for the President to instruct his Attorney General to bring to justice the Cubans who downed the Cuban-American planes of Brothers to the Rescue in February 1996.

The trial of the spies implicated in this incident is now underway in Florida and "instructions" to Attorney General Ashcroft have the potential to influence trial developments and the eventual outcome at the court in Miami. The Justice Department understands the will of the Congress, and cannot ignore or delay its reaction waiting for the passage of the bill. How the espionage trial proceeds will be a significant indicator of the intentions of the Administration.

In his announcement of the Senate bill, Senator Helms noted ". . . pending indictments also tell us that Castro and his cronies are up their noses in cocaine smuggling. It is high-time for Fidel Castro to be held accountable for his many crimes." Is this revealing language telling us that the Administration is planning charges against Castro's government for cocaine trafficking? At minimum, the Senator's use of such precise and aggressive language in his May 16 speech let the Bush administration know the sentiments of the bill's sponsors. We cannot dismiss the words of Senator Helms as simply a rant from a right-wing ideologue, since former vice-presidential candidate Lieberman is the senior co-sponsor on the Democratic side.

Another important aspect of the bill speaks to the issue of national security. Said Senator Helms: "It (the bill) also requires an in-depth review of Castro's threats to U.S. security posed by his espionage and his relentless quest for unconventional weaponry." The mention of unconventional weaponry will open a debate in the Senate about Cuban high-technology advances in cyberwarfare and biochemical weapons. The sponsors of the bill and the Administration will be forced to reveal some interesting background information on which this "in-depth review" might be based. This is a serious matter that will attract attention from the press and the population in general. Perhaps "alarm" is too strong a word to describe public reaction, but public concern is bound to rise over potential threats from Cuba.

The proposed senate bill urges the administration to take a pro-active foreign policy role to end human rights violations in Cuba and it, in Senator Helms' words ". . . urges the "freedom broadcasting" stations Radio and Television Marti and the Voice of America to take steps to overcome Castro's jamming so their excellent programming is available throughout the island." In other words, the cosponsors of the bill urge Secretary of State Colin Powell not to wait for the passage of the bill to begin its implementation.

Senator Helms, Senator Lieberman, and their co-sponsors are virtually mandating that the Administration move expeditiously on these issues. Judging by this strong wording, I have to assume that we are on the way, maybe not immediately, to issue an ultimatum to Cuba of some sort in the near future.

The issue of the dissidents, apparently a primary reason behind the bill, I have some doubts about the feasibility of implementation. Presently, there are no ready avenues to get a steady supply of humanitarian aid to individuals in Cuba. Cuba is not Poland, where there existed a strong, compassionate and combative Roman Catholic Church that could defend individuals and organizations (such as labor unions) against an oppressive government. The dissident movement in Cuba is fragmented and heavily penetrated by government agents. Nevertheless, the Cuban dissidents throughout the island are on the spot. Castro has no option but to crack down on them.

To yield to dissident demands would be seen by the Castro regime as a sign of fear. Nevertheless, an accommodation with dissidents to any degree could lead to a domino effect among discontented Cubans. To crack down with violence on dissidents would again highlight the image of the Cuban government as a ruthless tyrant. Castro has to play a very careful hand in this unpredictably gamble.

I have to assume that Castro will try to mobilize his followers abroad in a campaign of support of Cuba. This campaign has to start as soon as possible to achieve its momentum during the Senate debate of the bill. Venezuela will be asked to play a dominant role. Will President Hugo Chavez back Castro all the way? I doubt that he will deliver even if he would like to do so. Chavez has enough problems of his own at this time.

The amount of $100 million is not a very generous spending for a planned four-year period. It appears that most of this money will be spent in the U.S. on small-scale assistance efforts designed to reach individual Cubans in need. There will be, of course, costs for administration and overhead, but I would expect that the U.S. government will not be content simply to throw money at the organizations claiming to do good. Rather, many approaches will be tried, and aid organizations and their plans will be held strictly accountable for money spent and results obtained. For programs that can be shown to be effective in meeting the aims of the Cuban Solidarity Act, the allocation of monies can easily be increased by Congress later on.

The debate in Congress on the bill will be interesting to watch, given the potential for assistance to independent Cuban groups and the possibility that independent self-employed Cubans will have a market for their products in the United States. We have to keep in mind that there is true, high-level, bipartisan support for similar bills in both houses of the Congress, and that the Bush Administration favors the approach of Senator Helms, Senator Lieberman and their colleagues. We await with interest both the debates in Congress and actions that the Bush Administration may take before any bill emerges from Capitol Hill.

Reaction from Castro will probably be the usual words of an outraged David versus Goliath, accompanied with brutality against dissidents (out of sight) in Havana and elsewhere in Cuba. Let us see if, in the words of Senator Helms: "Let Castro do his worst. Let us (the U.S.) do our best."

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Marcelo Fernández-Zayas

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