President Bush’s waiver of Title III of the Helms-Burton Act last week was met with a variety of reactions from foreign-born Atlantans with interest in Cuba.

          Those hoping Mr. Bush would allow the clause to go into effect, thus permitting U.S. lawsuits against foreign companies operating on confiscated property in Cuba, included Elena Merino, principal of The Meridian Group employee benefits firm in Roswell and organizer of a local Cuban-American advocacy group.

          “The implementation of Title III would have been a strong statement for upholding international labor laws,” Ms. Merino told GlobalFax. “Foreign companies operating in Cuba are violating articles of the International Labor Organization (ILO) by engaging in slave labor practices.”

Foreign enterprises in Cuba are not allowed to hire their own workers; all employees must be secured from the Cuban government, which is the sole employer, according to Ms. Merino. Moreover, Cuban workers receive about 5% of the wages foreign companies pay the Cuban government for their use, and Cuban workers are not allowed to unionize, she said.

Ignacio Taboada, honorary consul of Spain here, said that lawsuits over confiscated property should be resolved between Americans and the Cuban government directly, not involving the foreign companies.

The senior trade representative of the consulate general of Canada, Robin McNab, and the consul general of Mexico, Remedios Gomez-Arnau, both said Title III would be controversial. The U.S. is their largest trading partner, and both Canada and Mexico have considerable investments on the island, they said.

There is some contention over whether foreign companies can actually be sued for operating on confiscated property in Cuba, Ms. Merino noted. The Spanish hotel chain, Sol Melia, which operates 19 hotels on the island, claims it does not own the property and only owns 49% of the joint venture with the Cuban government, therefore it cannot be held legally responsible under Title III, she said.

The same might be argued by all foreign companies operating on Cuban property because private property does not exist in the communist country, Ms. Merino noted.

Mr. Taboada, whose family in Spain owned Havana Club, the largest rum manufacturer in Cuba, would like to recover his family’s company property, but he said it is not realistic. “This Helms-Burton act is not the way to go about getting back what is ours. We first need to encourage the establishment of a democratic government in Cuba.”

          Canada and Mexico believe that trade and investment and their companies’ ability to speak on frank terms to the top Cuban leadership have better prospects for democratizing and reforming the Cuban political-economy than do trade embargoes, the representatives said.

Each Atlantan interviewed would like to see commercial relations open up with Cuba once a democratic government and market-based economy are established and private property rights are restored.

          Mr. Bush will decide on Jan. 31 whether to waive the Helms-Burton Title III again.

          Contact Mr. Martinez at (404) 657-1960, Ms. Merino at (678) 585-0224 and Mr. Taboada at (770) 518-2440.