HL Deb 27 November 1996 vol 576 cc261-3

3.10 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they propose to persuade the Government of the United States of America to end their boycott of Cuba and to allow normal trading relations to be resumed.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey)

My Lords, the United Kingdom voted with European Union partners in support of the Cuban resolution condemning the US embargo against Cuba at the UN General Assembly on 12th November.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. However, is she aware that the boycott is now having an impact upon what was once a very good health service in Cuba and that that is creating a shortage of medicine and is affecting children? I ask this Question as a member of the council of the Save the Children Fund. What more can be done to persuade the US Government that the Helms-Burton Act will certainly not bring down Castro, but will simply result in making poor people poorer because Cuba is unable to earn its living as a trading nation?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am aware of the problems with medicines. That is why we have been contributing through the European aid programme. We have also been giving emergency relief to help the children of Cuba to whom the noble Baroness referred.

On the main point of the Question, we have felt it right that we should clearly reject the US approach in the Helms-Burton embargo. That is why we have supported the Cuban resolution. We know that the Helms-Burton provisions may have been congressionally driven, but it is possible for the new White House to suspend that legislation—and that is exactly what it should do. Although we have not changed our attitude or our desire to promote political and economic reform in Cuba, we believe that that is best achieved by trade and influence. However, we shall continue our strong criticism of Cuba's record on human rights and fundamental freedoms because it is right to do that. However, it is not right to seek to put the second matter right by the implementation of the Helms-Burton Act.

Lord Elton

My Lords, can my noble friend tell us how effective the Helms-Burton Act is and whether there is any subsisting trade between Cuba and the United States?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that question. On carefully probing the matter, I was amazed to learn that between 1994 and 1996 it is estimated that six top US international telephone companies transferred no less than 76.8 million US dollars to the Cuban telephone company, Etecsa, as its share of the revenue generated by the rising number of calls to Cuba from the US. That is continuing; so there is trade despite Helms-Burton. That fact should be known.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Helms-Burton Bill is objectionable not purely because of its effect on the health service in Cuba and on the economy of Cuba, but also because of the extra-territoriality that it involves, which also applies to the d'Amato Bill?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. The blocking statute which was taken through Congress covers the d'Amato legislation, which is the legislation against Iran and Libya and companies which trade with those countries. Provisions on that are contained in the European Union regulation on Helms-Burton but, as yet, the United States has not implemented legislation which covers the d'Amato Bill. Nevertheless, it is very serious because of its extra-territoriality, which is why we shall continue to try to change the performance of the US Government on this matter and to ensure that the White House suspends the legislation at its next available opportunity.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, the Government are to be congratulated on being prepared to stand up to our most powerful ally. Does the Minister agree that the role of a good ally is not to be afraid to criticise a powerful friend when that friend is in the wrong? However, is the Minister aware that it is suggested that the role of the Cuban émigrés, particularly in Florida and in other parts of America, is part of the reason why the United States Government are so intransigent on this matter? Could the Minister suggest to the American Government that the role of those émigrés in Florida, and their reliability, may be no greater than that of émigrés from the Conservative Party in this country?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am not sure that I followed the noble Lord's last question and I was rather shocked by his first comment because he agreed with me, and that is a rare event. It is absolutely clear that the way to change the mind of a government on matters about which you disagree is by contact. That is why we shall maintain our strong representations and our criticism of Cuba's record on human rights and fundamental freedoms. I am sure that all noble Lords would agree with that. At the same time, however, we shall seek to change the position of the United States, which is an illogical position given the answer for which I was asked by my noble friend earlier.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether any British companies are now in danger of falling foul of the Helms-Burton law and being blacklisted in the US? I understand that that now seems likely to happen to some Canadian companies. In the light of what the Minister has said this afternoon about the Government's policy on this matter, what advice are the Government now giving to companies that wish to trade with Cuba?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, we have condemned the unjustified and unacceptable action of banning British businessmen from the US under Title IV. That is quite wrong. No UK citizen should be targeted in that fashion in whatever way has occurred or is likely to occur. On trade with Cuba, our advice is that regular trade should continue. That is why we had DTI-sponsored representation at the Havana International Trade Fair earlier this month, which 36 British companies attended. A further DTI-sponsored trade mission is due to go there next year. It is interesting to note the great increase in UK exports to Cuba. They were up 71 per cent. in the first nine months of this year. That is a very good record. Imports from Cuba—important to that country—are also up.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, would the Minister agree that regional self-help, including Latin and Caribbean countries, could be a useful initiative given that there are many issues where US policy undermines development?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I believe that regional self-help anywhere in the world can be immensely useful. Nothing better helps trade to take off or business to multiply than people being involved with their neighbours in making trading understandings work well. That includes reducing barriers to trade. It is not just a question of the extra-territoriality of the Helms-Burton measure; it is the fact that that is a restriction on trade.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, will Her Majesty's Government suggest to the United States Government that it might be as well—they could do so of their own accord—to follow the example of His Holiness the Pope who is paying a visit to Cuba as an act of friendship and reconciliation?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, we sincerely hope that the visit of His Holiness will be a good one. I rather doubt whether he needs the permission of Helms-Burton to go there. He has received an invitation from the leader of Cuba, Mr. Castro. We look forward to good common sense being talked by His Holiness when he is there.