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  • Clinton signs law with right-wing congresspeople Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (red), Bob Menendez (next to Clinton), Jesse Helms (far left), and Lincoln Diaz-Balart (back right).

    Clinton signs law with right-wing congresspeople Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (red), Bob Menendez (next to Clinton), Jesse Helms (far left), and Lincoln Diaz-Balart (back right). | Photo: Reuters

The U.S. looked to pressure revolutionary Cuba into submission by passing the Helms-Burton Act but 21 years later, it didn't succeed.

While there was a limited new approach by the Obama administration to relations with Cuba, one of the biggest obstacles remains the U.S. blockade on the socialist nation, which in turn is hampered by the legislation known as the Helms-Burton Act, which has been one of the U.S.' most aggressive policies against Cuba since the beginning of the blockade in the 1960s.

The law was passed by Congress and then signed into law by former President Bill Clinton on March 12, 1996, 21 years ago, unconventionally taking away the president’s power over foreign policy issues.

Congress has the last say over ending the decades-long blockade on Cuba

The bill was introduced by right-wing Republican Senator Jesse Helms and House Representative Dan Burton, who called for further restrictions on exports to Cuba and most importantly to giving the U.S. Congress the ultimate power over lifting the blockade in their incessant hope that the revolutionary government would be overturned and “returned to democracy.”

Bill Clinton almost vetoed the bill

When the bill was introduced President Clinton saw it as an infringement on his executive powers as it takes away the traditional presidential oversight and control over foreign policy issues. In fact, the bill was the result of intensive lobbying by Cuban counter-revolutionary forces in Washington, D.C. who attempted — and succeeded — in countering Clinton’s limited opening to Cuba.

A Cuban terrorist group from the U.S. known as “Brothers to the Rescue,” made up of Cuban-American pilots, intensified its flights over Cuban airspace, leading to tow planes being shot down by the Cuban army where four members were killed.

Congress, emboldened by the killing of U.S. citizens, passed the bill and President Clinton, seeking reelection, caved in to right-wing hysteria and signed it into law.

The law allows Cubans in the U.S. to claim lands that were expropriated after revolution

One of the act’s most repugnant sections is the fact that it allows Cubans in the U.S. whose lands were expropriated after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, to claim those lands from the Cuban government and also sue foreign companies or countries that use or “traffic” these lands, despite the fact that they were not U.S. citizens at the time of the expropriation.

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This section has proven contradictory for the U.S. government since it risks alienating and even suing allies and key trade and economic partners such as Canada and the European Union, who have maintained trade with Havana for decades.

Therefore, every U.S. president since the passage of the law has signed a six-month waiver that suspends that article of the law and prevents Cuban-Americans from suing companies from other nations that work in Cuba on expropriated lands, which are now being used for airports and seaports, among other things.

Cuba has its own legislation that counters the Helms-Burton Act

In December 1996, revolutionary Cuba passed a law declaring invalid any claim made under Helms-Burton, saying that U.S. citizens seeking to make claims would be excluded from any possible settlement of the property issued by Havana and Washington.

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