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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

For Europeans, U.S. Stance on Cuba Is Crazy

Looked at from Europe, it sometimes seems that, where Cuba is concerned, U.S. politicians are under the spell of some mind-bending drug that causes normally intelligent, level-headed people to lose all touch with reality. The latest example concerns the U.S. government's threat to allow lawsuits to be filed in U.S. courts against foreign companies doing business in Cuba.

President Bill Clinton on Tuesday ordered a six-month delay before the measure comes into force, but even so the threat has outraged Canada and the European Union's 15 member governments and provoked all sorts of warnings about retaliatory action, such as introducing stricter visa and work permit rules for U.S. businessmen visiting Europe. This could turn into the worst transatlantic trade dispute since ... well, since a very similar row erupted in the early 1980's over European business dealings with Leonid Brezhnev's Soviet Union.

The Cuba row is, at one level, a consequence of the so-called Helms-Burton Act, recently passed by the Republican-controlled Congress. The act symbolizes a get-tough approach toward Cuba that Clinton has no intention of resisting.

At another level, the Cuba row reflects the enduring instinct of the U.S. government to seek to extend the reach of its laws beyond American shores. Perhaps the most notorious case occurred in 1994, when the Supreme Court upheld the right of the California state government to tax the worldwide earnings of foreign companies.

The European view is that it is ridiculous for the United States to seek to force change in Fidel Castro's Cuba by punishing U.S. allies around the globe. Most EU countries would add that, however bad Cuba's domestic and international record during Castro's 37-year rule, these days it cannot fairly be placed in the same hall of infamy as, say, Iraq.

One or two EU states, notably Spain (with which the United States fought a war over Cuba in 1898), might even argue that the U.S. should stop bullying Cuba forthwith. However, it needs to be remembered that the Helms-Burton Act was prompted to a large extent by the shooting down of two American planes over Cuba last February.

Perhaps the most serious U.S.-European trade row of modern times broke out in 1982, when the United States imposed sanctions on European firms producing equipment under U.S. license for a Soviet gas pipeline to Western Europe. The stated U.S. objective was to obstruct the pipeline project and thereby punish the Soviet Union for its role in the 1982 martial law crackdown in Poland, but the main result was a disturbing breakdown in U.S.-European relations.

I was working in New York during that crisis and can well remember sympathizing with the U.S. impatience with western European governments over their reluctance to adopt firm measures in response to the events in Poland. In the present case, although I find it hard to think of Castro as the personification of evil, there is no doubt that over the years many Europeans have had a wildly exaggerated idea of the supposed benefits that his one-party rule has brought to the Cuban people.

That said, the Helms-Burton Act takes things too far. It threatens to tear up the rules governing international trade, and it is injecting discord into U.S.-European relations as a time when they need to be as strong as possible.