Rob Christensen

Christensen: Jesse Helms and Obama’s new Cuba policy

North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms received a hero’s welcome from an adoring crowd of Cuban exiles when he visited Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood in 1995 to lay a wreath at a monument to slain veterans of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.

Helms, as the newly installed chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had long been an ardent critic of communist regimes in general and Cuba in particular.

Which is why one can only wonder what Helms, who died in 2008, would be saying today about the decision of President Barack Obama to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba and open an embassy in Havana.

It will still be up to a Republican Congress to lift the 54-year-old trade embargo.

Helms co-sponsored, along with Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, a bill in 1995 that would prevent any liberalization of U.S.-Cuban relations. The trade embargo had previously been the product of an executive order, but the Helms-Burton bill – also known as the Libertad bill – made it the law and expanded it.

“Whether Castro leaves Cuba in a vertical or horizontal position is up to him and the Cuban people,” Helms said at a news conference.

That’s the kind of talk that got Helms cheers in Little Havana.

President Bill Clinton threatened to veto the Helms-Burton bill, but he eventually signed it after the Cuban government shot down two private planes that killed four anti-Castro Cuban Americans.

At the White House ceremony, Clinton gave Helms one of the 17 pens used to sign the bill. Helms gave his pen to Cuban-American supporter Elena Amos saying: “You deserve this and I don’t,” according to an account in William Link’s biography of Helms, “Righteous Warrior.”

But the battle was not over. Helms then fought with the Clinton administration to enforce key trade provisions of the new law, which the administration had used its authority to exempt. It had made the exemptions because of criticism of Helms-Burton by U.S. trading partners in Europe and elsewhere.

Helms used his influence, including holding up confirmation of a key State Department appointment, to pressure the Clinton administration to enforce the trade provisions against Cuba.

While Helms is gone from the scene, North Carolina’s congressional delegation is much more Republican and has a much more conservative hue than when Helms was in office.

It also bears a strong Helms influence.

Two of the congressmen in the next session – Republicans George Holding of Raleigh and incoming Rep. David Rouzer of Johnston County – are former Helms aides.

Holding voiced displeasure with Obama, saying that “instead of rewarding an oppressive regime who has failed in the past to deliver increased freedoms and real economic reform, President Obama should instead advocate for the freedom of the Cuban people before any concessions are made.”

Rouzer, who worked on Helms’ staff for five years, called the president’s decision on Cuba “tragic.”

Helms’ “positions were based on strong moral clarity,” Rouzer said. “You become part of what you condone. As it relates to a communist regime, there are human rights abuses.

“Anything that benefits the regime doesn’t help the people,” Rouzer said. “All it does is to sustain the regime. What I found appalling is the prospect of having an American embassy in Cuba. That is not a message we need to send to tyrants around the world.

“Cuba is still listed as a state sponsor of terrorism,” Rouzer said. “Why President Obama would want to send that signal while we are facing a global threat is beyond me.”

Helms undoubtedly would offer an amen to that.