President Barack Obama notified Congress on Friday that he was suspending for six months a measure that would let any American whose property was seized in the Cuban Revolution of 1959 sue anyone of any nationality using the property today.
"I hereby determine and report to the Congress that suspension, for 6 months beyond August 1, 2012, of the right to bring an action under title III of the Act is necessary to the national interests of the United States and will expedite a transition to democracy in Cuba," Obama said in a letter to top lawmakers.
Obama's announcement was not a surprise—every president since Bill Clinton has suspended that provision of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996, better known as the Helms-Burton law. The legislation empowers presidents to waive that section for six-month intervals. Critics of the law have warned that allowing such lawsuits could pit Americans against individuals and entities from countries that are allied with the United States but who do not respect the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba.
Several large European hotel chains have built establishments in Cuba, where tourism is critical to the economy. But Obama recently seemed to rule out the further easing of trade restrictions if he wins a second term unless the island embraces democratic reforms. The announcement came on the anniversary of a July 13, 1994, incident in which Cubans fleeing the island aboard the tugboat 13 de Marzo died when the vessel sank as it was being chased by Castro's gunboats. Of the roughly 72 people on board, 41 died. Some survivors charged that the warships deliberately rammed the tugboat. Cuba has maintained it was an accident.
Obama heads late next week on a campaign swing through Florida, which is home to a thriving Cuban exile community. While anti-Castro sentiment runs high, younger Cuban-Americans have gradually become less fired-up by the issue than the generations that recall the revolution. Obama has eased some aspects of the five-decade-old American embargo, which initially aimed to pressure Castro over the nationalization of American property, then grew gradually tighter as Havana lined up with Moscow in the Cold War. Supporters of the embargo say it remains Washington's best tool for pressuring Cuba into adopting democratic reforms.
But in recent years, a growing chorus of American critics of the sanctions has noted that the punitive measures did nothing to prevent Castro from outlasting American president after president. And they have charged that Washington is guilty of hypocrisy when it embraces trade with China as a democratizing force but blocks trade with Cuba. They have also called the embargo pointless at a time when Europeans and others are investing in Cuba.