Ethnic Interest Group Influence on US Foreign Policy Toward Cuba

Paul Woodruff



The American governmental system provides many points of access for groups to influence policy.  Business, moral, single-focus, and even ethnic lobbies utilize their extensive monetary resources and electoral clout to help guide legislation in order to secure some benefit for their cause.  Candidates for political office by and large cannot ignore these influences because they are dependent on the contributions and votes these groups can deliver to them.  For those candidates who are unwilling to aid interests, the results can be disastrous.

            Not all interests are as effective as others though.  Many, like business lobbies, can offer large contributions, yet be unable to mobilize the votes necessary for candidates to win elections.  Others, like ethnic lobbies, can guarantee large numbers of votes with minimal contributions and be more successful than all other interests vying for favorable policy.  We shall then explore who has greater impact on the American system.  In the end it should become apparent that ethnic lobbies can have a greater ability to guide United States foreign policy than the seemingly more powerful business lobbies.

Politicians give favor to those who can support them.  It does not matter where the money or votes come from, so long as they can be guaranteed victory.  It is important to understand this because behind the power of groups to aid politicians also comes their power to influence policy.  Thus, understanding these basic concepts makes it easier to see why laws like the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 and its predecessor the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 were passed.  These two pieces of legislation were guided by Cuban lobbies in an effort to secure the demise of Fidel Castro.  At stake in 1996; the permanent United States foreign policy toward the nation of Cuba.  Despite large opposition from the Chamber of Commerce and many other business interests, the power of the much smaller Cuban-American National Front (CANF) proved more appealing to lawmakers and set into stone the premise from which the United States would handle its policy toward Cuba.

How do we attempt to explain the impact these small ethnic groups can exert on the American system then?  There are several factors including money, votes, and partisanship which help to explain why small groups of voters in specific areas can be so successful.  When ethnic lobbies learn how to finesse each of these elements they have the potential to gain a unique access to politicians that other groups simply cannot compete with.  The reason they have this unique access is because of their single issue focus.  They are better able to achieve their ends because they have one overarching goal.  The American-Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC) is composed of Jews focused on protecting the rights of Israel in the Middle East.  CANF is made up of former Cuban nationals wishing to topple Castro in order to free their families and reclaim lost property from the revolution.  Similarly, Trans Africa is an organization dedicated to directing US foreign aid to Africa.

It could also be said that in times when there is no real threat to our national security, American politics becomes the politics of organized groups.  Additionally, it is not only the “power elite” who command vast amounts of wealth and control vital aspects of our economy that possess the ability to guide policy.  Small groups of focused voters can and do exert change on the system (T. Smith 2000).  A great deal has been written on the influence of ethnic lobbies and their ability to guide United States foreign policy.  But to what extent does this power yield results in relation to that of the business lobbies?
            Some may argue that business lobbies are indeed much the same in that common industries will band together to advocate laws benefiting their specialty.  However, business interests are much bigger than companies banding together out of commonality.  The Chamber of Commerce arguably acts as one of the largest influences behind business in America and looks to protect their members on thousands of issues.  Subsequently, business groups occupy themselves with a greater number of issues than ethnic groups do (Cigler 1995). 

For example, retailers are not just concerned with one or two factors in their market.  Their lobbies work to create tax codes, tariff rates, eased regulations for production of goods, and numerous other policies that positively affect their position.  They trouble themselves not only with concerns faced at home, but also factors in oversees markets, imports, and a score of similar issues (Cigler 1995).  Simply put, they have many concerns at home and abroad which causes their efforts to guide policy to be more complicated than the policy advocated by single focused ethnic groups.

Because ethnic groups are focused on one or two major issues related to their homelands it provides a factor that business is hard pressed to match; emotion.  Legislation and policy from ethnic groups carry strong emotional ties because there is a sense of urgency to get results on specific issues.  Whether the cause is granting aid to black Africa, sanctioning governments in Cuba and South Africa, or aiding Israel in dealing with its relations to their Arab neighbors, a great deal of feelings and emotions play part in their actions (Wall 1997).  More importantly, this urgency and need for change translates into votes and monetary support for candidates from ethnic minorities like Cubans in Florida or Jews in New York. 

Business lacks this emotional cohesion that occurs within ethnic identities.  Furthermore, business is focused on a net material gain in the form of money through expansion of markets and increased trade while ethnic lobbies are concerned with the rights and well-being of their ancestral background (Cigler 1995).  This is not to say groups like Cuban-Americans are not also interested in reclaiming lost property and receiving compensation for destroyed goods, but overall the drive is to secure foreign policy favoring the families and integrity of their homeland culture.

Additionally, it can be rationalized that there are winners and losers in business.  Telephone company A can beat out telephone company B for a contract in Cuba, but there are always other markets to move on to in order to make profit and survive (Cigler 1995).  On the converse, genocide in Rwanda cannot be reversed or simply changed.  Death is permanent.  In the end, it is hard for a business lobby who is concerned about their economic well-being to compete with causes like saving life.

So in terms of causes, it can be seen that fundamental differences do exist between these two actors.  The question then arises of how each group goes about engaging the government to favor their policy.  For the purpose of this paper’s analysis, three aspects will be evaluated for both ethnic lobbies and business lobbies. 

To evaluate these three aspects, pluralism and elite theory will be employed.  Pluralism thus will take the side of ethnic lobbies and argue that all interests groups matter in the American system and can have equal chance at succeeding in policy change.  More specifically, the focus of this theory is going to be the influence ethnic lobbies have to guide US foreign policy through contributions and votes.  Elite theory will argue that only business groups matter in the American system and subsequently have the greatest amount of influence on US foreign policy.  Elite theory in this context rationalizes that citizen’s votes are not the main concern to politicians because first, they work to protect American business over all interests and second, business has more substantial incentives to offer policy makers.  In the end, the reason why we will see that pluralism carries more weight in deciding foreign policy is because ethnic lobbies use the power of targeted contributions and mobilize their geographically concentrated minorities to impact the outcomes of elections through votes.

At stake in this debate between pluralism and elite theory is the better judgment of our politicians and the policies they pursue for the US.  Through the aspects of the two theories laid out below the intentions and reasoning politicians use when deciding the nation’s actions will become clearer.

 The three aspects to be advanced by pluralism are as follows:

1.       Politicians advocate foreign policy for the electoral and monetary benefits available from ethnic lobbies.

2.       Ethnic lobbies support politicians regardless of their partisanship.

3.       Cuban-American lobbies have greater influence on United States policy toward Cuba

 The three aspects to be advanced by elite theory are as follows:

1.       Politicians advocate foreign policy for the monetary contributions of business lobbies

2.       Business supports politicians who are more conservative in ideology.

3.       Business groups have greater influence on United States policy toward Cuba.


Key to the first two points for pluralism is that they have an extra advantage when it comes to votes and influence in both parties.  Additionally, the first two points of both sides will be topical to current literature on the influence of each in foreign policy and within the realm of the case study.  The third however, will be specifically answering the hypothesis of the paper when all aspects have been evaluated. 


             Ethnic groups make up small minorities of the American population.  Jews represent roughly 3%, Greeks 1%, and Cubans one-half of 1% of the population (T. Smith 2000).  The amount of money these groups can raise is going to be significantly less than that of corporations and lobbies like the Chamber of Commerce.  Furthermore, a key factor that allows these small ethnic minorities to have political clout is that campaign finance rules allow contributions to be made from outside congressional districts.  So in the case of Cuban-Americans, where the largest contingency of their populations reside in Miami-Dade County Florida and Union City New Jersey, they can influence powerful members of Congress without ever voting for them.  Take for example their support of Senator Jesse Helms of South Carolina between 1995 and 1996 when he was both up for reelection and trying to advocate the passage of the Helm-Burton Act.  Of the $68,000 dollars he received over his career from Cuban donators, 74% came between these two years.  Following the passage of the bill, he did not receive a single donation from any identified Cuban-American or associated group (“Cuban Connection”“n.d.”). 

Business can also donate to candidates anywhere in the United States.  Chambers of Commerce around the nation gave more than $5.5 million to candidates during the 1996 elections (“Chambers” 2004).  That does not include the national group which handed out tens of millions more.  That said though, it still does not play to the fact that these business groups have more they are vying for than just foreign policy favorable to them.  They have great concerns domestically, while the ethnic groups are donating to see their specific foreign policy enacted.  This says bounds for the ability of these groups to be able to influence politicians despite their smaller contributions to candidates.  It also suggests that when special interests are focused, the structure of American politics allows a determined, self-interested, minority to speak for America in world affairs (T. Smith 2000).

Which political candidates receive contributions is the other significant factor in the power of money.  Business lobbies have greater amounts of money to donate; therefore they can spread their contributions to a greater number of candidates.  Take for example in the 1980 presidential race where out of ten of the countries top defense contractors, nine contributed to the Carter campaign and seven of those nine also contributed to the Reagan campaign.  More specifically, during the primaries, Grumman Aerospace gave at least $2,000 dollars a piece to seven candidates running in the presidential primaries.  Also, during the 1980 New York senatorial campaign, all three major candidates received contributions from the same firms.  One business lobbyist even revealed, “If they don’t win this time, they may be back later.  Money’s not going to buy anyone, but you get their attention and you get the door open (Hastedt 2003).”

Ethnic lobbies take a different approach altogether.  Instead of spreading campaign contributions to several hundred representatives and dozens of senators, they can achieve their goals by contributing to well-placed members of Congress, preferably to senior senators and representative in charge of committees (T. Smith 2000).  Former Senator Robert Torricelli, of New Jersey, reported in his 1996 campaign disclosures that he had raised over $9.2 million dollars in an effort to win his seat.  Spending sometimes more than three hours a day for over a year, Torricelli was successful in gaining the financial support he would need to win.  He was even quoted as saying, “A lot of House members duck Foreign Affairs because it doesn’t bring lots of money to your district, but I’ve never felt disadvantaged…nobody does it better than me.”  Indeed the senator did very well, raising $399,000 from Florida Cubans, $28,000 from pro-Israeli PACs, and $25,000 from Greek lobbies (T. Smith 2000).  These groups were right in funding Torrecelli’s campaign considering he was the author of the 1992 Cuban-Democracy Act, and when elected to the Senate appointed to the Foreign Relations committee.

Just as ethnic groups can contribute money to those who aid them, so can they contribute to the opposition of those who fail to support them.  In the 1980’s opponents of Representative Paul Finley, Senator Charles Percy, and Senator Jesse Helms received heavy backing from pro-Israeli forces.  In Finley’s election, 90% of his opponent’s resources came from Jewish sources.  Both Finley and Percy lost their bids, while Helms, who was barely reelected quickly became a strong advocate of Israel.  During the 1996 Senate election, Pakistani-American groups contributed $150,000 to South Dakota Democratic challenger Tim Johnson because incumbent Larry Pressler had authored legislation cutting US foreign aid to Pakistan (Hastedt 2003).

Additionally, the amount of money an ethnic group contributes may not tell the full story of exactly how much money is flowing to candidates.  Pro-Israel PACs are only a small part of the money the Jewish Community gives out of concern for Israel (T. Smith 2000).  There is really no way of determining just how much money is given from individuals who are influenced by the actions of specific lobbies to donate directly to candidates.  So the impact of this money could be far greater if there were a way of factoring in the contributions of ethnic individuals.

            Money is not the only way that groups can have an impact on the system though.  Votes, cast by the public are the ultimate determining factor in who represents the people.  Although money may greatly impact who the public votes for, organizations with the power to actually guide substantial portions of the popular vote ultimately can have a greater control over what policies are enacted.  

From the business perspective, one could argue that during the 1990s, the United States mounted massive trade missions to help its companies win contracts in emerging markets.  Additionally, strengthening economic globalization became an organizing principle for most of America’s foreign policy (Garten 2002).  Charles Lindblom argues that business has a power which owes nothing to votes or orthodox political campaigning.  Furthermore, business groups occupy a ‘privileged position’ that is extremely different from other interest groups.  Within capitalistic societies, politicians entrust businessmen with making decisions, knowing that if they are displeased business will be less inclined to invest, slowing economic growth (Wilson 1981). 

However, Lindblom is ignoring that to be elected, politicians need more than just know what is good for the economic system.  Politicians require votes from a broad spectrum of the populace.  To this point, it would appear that elite theory would suggest that business lobbies could successfully take advantage of any open market because the government would recognize the advantages of doing so.  Yet that does not explain the Helms-Burton Act which prohibits United States companies from investing in Cuba.  This will be explored more thoroughly in the case study.

Until recently, business groups depended almost exclusively on giving campaign contributions rather than mobilizing voters to elect politicians friendly to their positions.  However, in the 2000 elections, the National Federation of Independent businesses took to ground war tactics in order to mobilize voters (Gettlin 2002).  Although these efforts have only been undertaken recently to counteract the turn-out efforts of worker unions and liberal-based groups, it demonstrates the acknowledgement of business groups that generating votes for candidates is just as important if not more important than contributions.  A representative of the National Federation of Independent Businesses even stated, “As an organization, we are much more effective when we spend our money delivering a message to help a candidate, rather than just handing the money to a candidate (Gettlin 2002).”  This helps to illustrate that business has come to realize the impact of mobilizing votes much the same way ethnic lobbies do.

Ethnic lobbies on the other hand have fully understood the power they posses with the weight of their votes.  While ethnic lobby money can reach candidates in states lacking such minorities, votes on the other hand can reach politicians representing states home to large minority populations.  Though Jews only constitute 3% of the national population, in New York State they are 9%.  Additionally, because the vast majority are Democrats, they constitute more precisely 15% of this state’s overall Democratic vote.  More to that, since they vote at twice the levels of the state average, they account for almost 30% of all the votes cast in Democratic primaries (T. Smith 2000).  This sizable presence in the electorate thus grants access for Jews in Washington through their representatives and most especially their senators.  The same can be said of Cuban-Americans who are concentrated in Union City New Jersey and Dade Country Florida.

Of the latter, congressmen and most especially presidential candidates pay particular attention to Cubans in Florida.  In 1992, Bill Clinton visited Miami’s Little Havana to criticize President Bush’s apprehension to sign the Cuban Democracy Act.  On the spot, Clinton received $300,000 dollars in contributions from Cuban lobbies.  Following Clinton’s vocal support of the law, President Bush signed the legislation in an effort to retain Cuban-American favor.  The ploy resulted in Clinton only receiving 18% of the Cuban-American vote, with the rest going in favor of Bush (T. Smith 2000).  Conversely in 1996 when the Helms-Burton Act was passed by both houses, the determining factor in Clinton’s decision to sign the legislation were the electoral impacts of Cuban-American populations in Florida and New Jersey (Haney and Vanderbush 2002).  Clinton signed the bill and won both states in the 1996 presidential election.  This time, Clinton carried Florida with the help of a much appeased Cuban voting population.


             Business lobbies have long supported the Republican Party.  This has been true through times of majority as well as minority in Congress.  They stick with the conservative ideology that can best serve their interests.  Ethnic groups on the other hand are not as one-tracked in their support for one party over the other.  Since the late 1970’s more money has been funneled to Democrats.  However, one must keep in mind that the Democrats controlled Congress for 40 years, and consequently had a great deal of influence in committees that concerned foreign policy.  Through the 1990’s, with the shift in power to a Republican controlled Congress so came a shift in candidate support.  Ethnic groups are not necessarily bound by the ideology that business groups are.  As pluralism suggests, ethnic groups will support whoever can achieve their ends.  Since groups other than business do have the power to influence, ethnic lobbies have been able to gain success by supporting the necessary people.

Businesses support and have continually supported Republican candidates more than they do Democrats.  In 1962, former President Dwight Eisenhower came out to rally businessmen to vote for Republican candidates who were at that time and remained for most a great part of the 20th Century the minority in both the House and Senate.  Additionally, in 1963 the Business Industry Political Action Committee established its efforts around contributing donations to conservative candidates in an effort to offset the influence the more liberal AFL-CIO exerted on politicians (Wilson 1981). 

The business money trail also depicts a similar story in which Republican candidates are time and time again favored over Democrats.  In the 2000 election cycle business lobbies donated $706,000,000 to Republicans and $514,500,000 to Democrats, or 57% to Republicans and 42% to Democrats.  Within the 2002 election cycle business lobbies donated a total of $577,000,000 to Republicans and $429,000,000 to Democrats, or in percentages 57% to Republicans and 43% to Democrats.  Looking at the candidates for president in 2004 a similar pattern appears in their top ten lifetime contributors.  Nine out of ten of the biggest contributors to Republican President Bush are businesses.  On the other hand only four of the top ten contributors to Democratic Senator Kerry are businesses (“The Money” 2004).

Ethnic lobbies on the other hand spread their money and support between both parties.  Between 1989 and 2000 69% of Pro-Israeli PAC money was contributed to Democrats while 31% was given to Republicans.  Cuban-American PACs contributed 58% to Democrats and 42% to Republicans.  Albanian-American PACs donated 28% to Democrats and 72% to Republicans (“Cuban Connection”).  While this may seem lopsided one must look further into the donations.  Of the top ten recipients of Cuban-American money, six are Republicans.  Among those ten are two presidents, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush.  Of the candidates receiving over $40,000 there are names like Edward Kennedy, Richard Gephardt, Bill Clinton, Jesse Helms, Bob Dole, Robert Torricelli, and both Bush’s (“Cuban Connection”).  That packs a good mixture of powerful Democrats and Republicans to have on one’s side. 

Additionally, a contributing factor which might help to explain why more money has been given to Democrats is the fact that wealthier Cuban-Americans have traditionally donated to them.  If one were to remove the 14 Cuban-American families that have given over $100,000 between 1979 and 2000, the GOP has received 52% of contributions while the Democrats have gotten 48%.  More to that there is a difference between what type of politician receives money.  At the congressional level contributions were given to 56% of Democrats while at the presidential level, Republicans received 70% (“Cuban Connection”).

Looking to Israeli PAC money, it has been donated more heavily to Democrats because of the areas in which many of their minority populations live.  Many pro-Israeli contributions flow to the dominant party in states where Jewish populations are centered.  Consequently, places like New York, California, New Jersey, and southern Florida all see heavier donations go to Democrats who hold the Senate seats and for the most part a majority of the House districts.

As far as Israeli PACs are concerned, although the figures given above show a clear advantage to Democrats the tides have clearly been changing within the past decade.  By 1996, two years after the Republican takeover of Congress, 53% of contributions went to Republican candidates running for Congress.  National PAC, the largest pro-Israel PAC and overall contributor of nearly 1/3 of contributions, donated 65% of their funds to Republicans (Kurtzman 1996).  This change can be attributed to the shifting of chairmanships in Congressional committees to Republicans.  The same can be said during any time a new majority captures Congress, but looking at the types of people the contributions are normally being aimed at, presidential candidates and influential congressmen, it appears that ethnic lobbies are willing to support whomever can best achieve their goal.

Consider also the example of Republican Jesse Helms.  In his 1984 Senate reelection bid, he realized the value of having ethnic lobbies on his side.  His opponent, then Governor James Hunt, received an amazing $222,342 in contributions from pro-Israel PACs (Barnes 2002).  Helms, whose record was the most anti-Israel in the Senate was able to win by a narrow margin.  Following the race, the senator had a sudden change of heart on Israel.  He even made a trip to Jerusalem to kiss the Western Wall, complete with a yarmulke on his head.  From that point on, Helms became one of the best allies of Israel in the Senate, and was rewarded election after election with Israeli group support (Barnes 2002).  In 1994 Republicans regained control of both Houses of Congress.  Helms became the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations and used his position to crack down on US/Cuban relations following President Clinton’s decision to intervene in Haiti’s election crisis (Haney and Vanderbush 2002).  With the organizational and monetary aid of the Cuban-American National Front, Helms and Representative Dan Burton of Indiana sponsored the Helms-Burton Act, which would cement US embargoes and sanctions on Cuba.

Finally, support for the president in many cases does not hinge on partisanship either.  In 1992, President Bush captured the Cuban-American vote in Florida by signing into law the Cuban-Democracy Act.  In 1996, Clinton won Florida by signing the Helms-Burton Act, thus gaining the support of Cuban-Americans (Haney and Vanderbush 2002).  Thus, once again ethnic groups support those who further their cause.

From this comparison it can be seen that within business lobbies there is a distinction between candidates by partisanship.  More economically conservative candidates, Republicans, receive more monetary support than Democrats.  While the Democrats are not entirely left out, they do receive less financial support and endorsements from major business PACs.  Ethnic lobbies on the other hand are willing to change their support from one party to another as they gain prominence within the Congress.  They are also willing to spread the wealth to candidates who hold positions of power regardless of past positions on policy.  This distinction becomes important when reviewing the passage of the Helms-Burton Act because CANF and other related groups contributed and supported Republican Jesse Helms and Democrat Bill Clinton.  They made no distinction based on party; rather they focused on who had influence and the ability to pass favorable legislation.


            Over the past 40 years, the United States has maintained a truly unique relationship with its island neighbor Cuba.  Following the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, President Kennedy and all of his successors have enforced strict sanctions and embargoes that have not only crippled Fidel Castro’s ability to lead a prosperous nation, but also prevented American businesses from reaping huge profits in a potentially profitable market.  For the intents of this half of the paper, the focus will be on the affects US foreign policy, namely the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, has had on changing Cuba, but more importantly understanding why legislation of this type is passed.

When looking back at history, initially the US embargo against Cuba made sense.  Castro had nationalized American properties without any compensation, aligned his government with the Soviet Union, and threatened to expand his Communist revolution to the rest of Latin America (W. Smith 1998).  The United States had credible reasons and justification for punishing Castro’s regime in an effort to not only give retribution to American businesses that had lost money, but to also ensure political stability in the Western Hemisphere.  Furthermore, during this time, the actions taken by the United States had a greater legitimacy because it was pursing these actions multilaterally.  By 1964, every member of the Organization of American States (OAS), except Mexico, had agreed to break diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba (Erisman 2000).  The organization stipulated that in order for Cuba to be released from this multi-lateral embargo, they would have to comply with two conditions.  Cuba had to cease all efforts to spread revolution and end their military ties with the Soviet Union (W. Smith 2000).  It is interesting to note that these demands did not even include a provision ensuring reparations to nations, chiefly the US, whose business had lost money in the revolution.

Following a decade of embargoes it was clear that Castro’s attempts to spread revolution had failed.  Many OAS nations realized the need for the embargo had passed and decided to reevaluate the multi-lateral sanctions they had approved only a decade earlier.  By 1975 most nations began to engage Cuba in normal relations, leaving it up to individual nations to decide if they wanted to continue the policy.  Not surprisingly, the United States opted out of lifting their ban on Cuba and continued the embargo (W. Smith 2000).

By the late 1970’s, the Carter administration had made large strides in negotiating terms that would normalize relations with CubaCuba recognized its obligation under international law to compensate expatriated US property, but insisted it could not begin to pay such reparations without a lifting of the embargos.  Before negotiations brokered a solution though, Castro involved Cuban troops in a conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia in 1978.  As a result, Carter added to two new stipulations for normalization; the removal of Cuban troops from Africa and a greater respect for human rights from Havana (W. Smith 2000).

By the late 1980’s changes were in the wind.  Cuban troops had left African conflicts and the Red Cross was being allowed to interview political prisoners in Havana.  The US State Department’s 1989 report on human rights even recognized significant improvements within the nation (Erisman 2000).  Three years later, the collapse of the Soviet Union ended their military relations with Castro and Fidel publicly announced that his nation would no longer pursue political revolution in Latin America (W. Smith 2000).  All four stipulations that had been put on Cuba by the United States were subsequently reached.  With the impending presidential election of 1992 it looked as if relations with Cuba could be changed for the better.

Quite to the contrary though, the government took a drastic shift in its approach to creating better relations with Cuba.  In 1992 the Cuban Democracy Act (CDA) was introduced by then-Representative Robert Torricelli (D-NJ) and sponsored in the Senate by Bob Graham (D-FLA).  The law was touted as “A bill to promote a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba through the application of appropriate pressures on the Cuban Government and support for the Cuban people.”  The law would isolate Castro by prohibiting any foreign-based subsidiaries of US companies from trading with Cuba (“Cuban Connection”).  Aside from tightening economic sanctions, the bill would also outlaw family remittances to Cuba and ban US citizens from traveling to Cuba.  Torricelli, the CDAs chief architect, predicted that within months the Castro regime would fall (W. Smith 1998).

Before the law could take effect though, the president would have to support it.  In 1991, Senator Connie Mack (R-FLA) introduced a bill that would prohibit subsidiaries of US firms from trading with Cuba, just as the future CDA would do.  President Bush did not support the law because it would “create a foreign policy problem with a lot of allies who rightly believe that that would be an assertion of US law into their territory and who would be prepared to retaliate in direct ways.”  Shortly after being proposed, the measure was defeated (Haney and Vanderbush 2002). 

Consequently when the CDA was presented to Congress, the president again expressed his displeasure with the bill.  It would have been relatively safe to assume that Bush would veto it once it hit his desk.  However, this time the leader of CANF, Jorge Mas Canosa met with representatives of Democratic challenger Bill Clinton to discuss a deal.  Clinton agreed to advocate the CDA and CANF would pledge its support to the Clinton’s campaign.  Clinton visited Miami’s Little Havana to applaud the CDA and criticize President Bush’s lack of support for the measure.  Although Clinton did receive a substantial amount of monetary support, some $300,000 in individual contributions, he was upstaged by Bush who signed the law in an effort to win the Cuban-American vote in southern Florida.  Bush’s actions worked to win him Florida’s electoral votes in the election and only allow Clinton to garner 18% of the Cuban-American’s support (T. Smith 2000).

What is amazing from an outside perspective is that the need for the CDA did not exist.  The US had established their four criteria for Cuba to meet before it would lift sanctions.  Following the end of the Cold War Cuba met every single point to qualify for a better position with the US.  That did not happen though, and mostly because of politicians like Robert Torricelli who had more important things on his mind, like campaign contributions and votes.  When one CANF official was questioned as to why Torricelli would have any concern with matters such as democracy in Cuba he responded by saying there is “Money and votes in Union City (T. Smith 2000).” 

Aside from the role that potential votes had to play for the presidential and Congressional candidates it is interesting to see how much money Cuban organizations had to offer these politicians.  In 1988, when Mack was pushing for tighter sanctions against Cuba, Cuban PACs contributed $10,000 and Cuban individuals gave $31,250.  During the 1992 election cycle, Torricelli received $10,000 from Cuban-PACs and $22,650 from individuals supporting the CDA.   Graham received $1,500 from Cuban PACs and $27,850 from individuals.  George Bush received $106,600 from individuals and Clinton an undetermined amount from individuals that exceeded more than $300,000 (“Cuban Connection”).  Every one of these men, all of whom promoted policy attractive to CANF and the Cuban population in America received hefty monetary support and votes.  Although Clinton ultimately won the 1992 election, Bush won Florida for his authorization of the CDA.

Two years later, following the Republican take-over of Congress, new efforts were again underway to drive Castro from power.  Jesse Helms became chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and intended to use his position to pass strict legislation on the island.  There are several reasons Helms wanted to increase pressure on Cuba.  First, the CDA did not work.  In 1993, the Cuban government put into place a number of reforms which allowed farmers to operate private markets, people to open other private enterprises like restaurants, the use of the US dollar as legal tender, and more favorable terms for foreign investment (W. Smith 1998).  By 1995, Cuba’s economy was growing by 2.5% and by 1996 7.6%.  So by enacting stiffer penalties against Cuba, hopefully Castro would be forced from power. 

Second, the Congressional Black Caucus had successfully motivated President Clinton to take action in Haiti to remove their dictator (Haney and Vanderbush 2000).  Helms and many others in Congress felt as though Clinton had gone back on his support of the CDA in 1992.  If removing a dictator in Haiti had been important to the president, so should be removing a dictator from Cuba. 

Third and final, Helms had learned a lesson from his 1984 re-election campaign.  Those who are not friendly to policy important to ethnic lobbies can soon find themselves out of office.  After discovering the value of working with the Israeli lobbies post 1984, he also understood the monetary benefits of working closely with other ethnic groups.  Helms was not in danger of being ousted in the upcoming ‘96 election, but elections are costly and by supporting stronger legislation to remove Castro, he would be able to gain access to contributions from Cuban-American groups.

What exactly would the bill do though?  Helms-Burton was divided into four titles, the first two of which were more acceptable to Clinton than the last two.  Title I was aimed at multilateralizing the US embargo as far as possible.  In other words it would mean that the president would no longer have sole control over the existence of the sanctions as he had before.  It also would try to prohibit Cuban participation in international financing organizations by sanction nations offering economic assistance to Cuba.  Title II established the criteria Cuba had to meet in order for sanctions to be lifted.  Stipulations included that neither Fidel Castro nor his son could be a part of the new government, all US properties nationalized prior to the 1960’s had to be returned or compensated for, and the new Cuban government would have to stop jamming Radio and TV Marti (both projects were supported by the US government as an ineffective way of combating Castro through the air waves).  Title III would allow US nationals to sue foreign companies and other entities in American federal courts for “trafficking” in properties taken from them during the revolution.  This title was extremely controversial because it ignored international law and would allow third party nations to be involved in matters they were never originally party to.  Title IV of the bill barred the entry of foreign executives into the US if they were said to be “trafficking” in the expatriated American properties.  Additionally, it also prohibited the executive’s spouses and children from entering the country (W. Smith 1998).

This bill was controversial to say the least.  Before this time, the sanctions placed on Cuba had never been carried out through legislation.  It had always been through executive order, which can be reversed at the will of a president.  Legislation on the other hand has to be repealed, which can be extremely difficult considering the complicated process and party lines that must be navigated through.  Once Helms-Burton was passed there would be no going back.  Furthermore, there was more than just the issue of removing Castro at hand.  Foreign nations and American businesses were up in arms over the prospects of such restrictive legislation becoming law.

Canadian officials protested Title III in a strongly worded letter to the State Department, stating that it “would constitute an illegitimate intrusion upon third countries (Haney and Vanderbush 2000).”  The OAS and virtually every European government denounced Helms-Burton as an illegal measure attacking national sovereignty.  Many governments even passed legislation that would cause countersuits to be levied against any American company seeking settlements against their national interests (W. Smith 2000).

This law would create problems not only for foreign companies and nations, but also American businesses.  Sanctions had kept American firms from investing in and opening valuable markets in Cuba since the 1960s.  Corporate executives were tired of being shut out of a developing and valuable marketplace.  As of August 1995, more than 100 American businesses had signed “letters of intent” with Cuban state-owned businesses to outline areas of cooperation in the event that trade relations were normalized (Dillon 1995). 

To be sure the government knew their feelings, the US Chamber of Commerce and numerous agricultural, industrial, and other commercial organizations made their voices heard to the president and Congressmen during committee hearings on the bill.  At a hearing on American-Cuban relations before the House Ways and Means Committee on June 30, 1995, the vice chairman of the US Rice Federation, Keith Broussard stated, “The US rice industry views the Cuban market as one of great potential once the embargo is no longer in place.”  At the same hearing, a representative of Louisiana’s governor, Edwin Edwards, told Congress that prior to the embargo, Louisiana’s number one trading partner had been Cuba.  Following the embargo over 6,000 related jobs had been lost, but could be easily regained if the sanctions were lifted (Dillon 1995).  Other testimonies emphasized the economic benefits that could result from dropping the embargo.  Estimations of potential benefits were set at an initial $3 billion trade profit for the US, which could quickly top $7 billion in a year or less (“Cuban Connection”).

Alexander Watson, Clinton’s Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, speaking to an audience of corporate executives at the State Department reminded them that “Cuba is a special case,” and “This Administration will maintain the embargo until major democratic changes take place in Cuba (“Helpful” 1995).”  This hardly seems a special case considering the US has extensive economic relations with Communist China and to a lesser extent Vietnam and North Korea.  It seems to be that that this “special case” involves the pressure Cuban-American groups hold over government officials in the form of contributions and votes. 

Regardless of votes, President Clinton was not at all pleased with the shape Helms-Burton had taken.  He did not want to cede his ability to maintain the embargo to the Congress, jeopardize relations with other nations by allowing foreign companies to be sued in American courts, and bar executives from entering the US for simply engaging in business with Cuba.  He had even been toying with relaxing the sanctions prior to Helms’ initiative.  Clinton realized the potential for improved relations, yet he was tied by the political power CANF and others could exert on his chances of winning reelection to the presidency.  He had to support some version of the bill, but it was preferable to have the more controversial provisions excluded from the final act.

In October of 1995, corporate executives were eating dinner with Castro to discus the potential for the introduction of services from firms like General Motors, Sears Roebuck, J.C. Penny, and even K-Mart (Erisman 2000).  Many executives had faith that their day was indeed coming.  Meanwhile, all this pressure seemed to be getting to both the Congress and president.  Clinton announced on October 6, 1995 that he would ease travel restrictions to the island for Cuban-Americans, give US nongovernmental organizations permission to give financial aid and material assistance to the destitute in Cuba, and even indicated a willingness to allow US news organizations to establish permanent bureaus in Havana.  On October 19, the Senate also changed its hard-lined position by passing a weakened version of Helms-Burton.  The key difference from the original bill was the absence of Titles III and IV.  Most important was the absence of the stipulation taking away the president’s right to alter the sanctions in Title I.   Only a month earlier, the House had passed the full version of the bill.  Following the Senate’s weakened version, it seemed as if the upcoming conference committee would in fact give corporate interest and foreign nations the changes they had demanded.

Helms-Burton received a second chance however, thanks to the actions of an anti-Castro organization named Brothers to the Rescue (BTTR).  On February 24, 1996 two small airplanes operated by BTTR pilots were shot down by Cuban jet fighters.  Immediately Clinton condemned the attack and realized his softened position would have to take a harder edge.  The president met with Representatives Burton, Torricelli, Diaz-Balart, and several others close to the Cuban cause to discuss a renegotiated Helms-Burton.  Clinton agreed to drop his previous grievances with Titles III and IV and allow the act to lock into place Congressional sanctions against Cuba.  Congress on the other hand agreed to give the president the authority to suspend the implementation of Title III at any time for renewable six-month periods.  They also agreed that Title III would not take affect until August 1, 1996 (Erisman 2000).

In the end Clinton lost far more than Congress.  He had lost the right to control the embargo and put US integrity on the line by allowing Title III to place America in direct violation of international law.  He really had no option though.  Following the downing of the two planes, he as commander in chief had to take some action punishing the transgressors.  More importantly to him though were the Cuban votes he would count on to win Florida in the 1996 elections.

On March 5, 1996 the Senate approved the revised version of Helms-Burton by a vote of 74 to 22.  The House followed suit the next day, approving the measure 336 to 86.  When July rolled around, Clinton realized that if he used his power to suspend Title III he might very well cause a backlash from anti-Castro Cuban voters.  He also did not want anger any of the governments that could potentially be sued under the provision.  Knowing he had to do something though, the president declared on July 30 that he would not postpone Title III, but he would not allow any lawsuits to be filed under the title until February 3, 1997.  Thus he avoided angering the Cuban voters and gave assurance to foreign governments that following his reelection Title III would be suspended.  After easily winning reelection with Florida’s electoral votes, Clinton announced on January 3, 1997 that he would use his power to suspend Title III in order to work with other governments to help promote a democratic transition in Cuba.  Every six months following, the president continued to exercise his power and suspend the title, thus appeasing the foreign governments so opposed to the act.  His successor, George W. Bush, has also continued to suspend Title III for much the same reasons.

            The money trail of campaign contributions leading up to the 1996 elections and passage of Helms-Burton is also interesting.  Business PACs contributed a total of $202 million in hard money to Congressional candidates (“Study” 1997).  When combining business PAC soft, hard, and individual contributions that figure jumps up to $653 million.  The vast majority of these funds, some 66%, were flowing into the war chests of incumbents positioned in important committees (“Study” 1997).  This figure clearly dwarfs all ethnic PAC contributions.  Of the top 5 ethnic groups contributing to politicians, the total given to candidates from 1989 through 2000 was a little over $18 million.  Of this total, $16,764,973 came directly from the 67 separate pro-Israeli PACs in existence (“Cuban Connection”).  Obviously there is some disparity between the hundreds of millions of dollars business PACs can to afford contribute in a single election and the substantially smaller ethnic PAC contributions over a decade.  Again going back to the idea formed earlier in the paper, business contributes to virtually every candidate.  Ethnic lobbies do not.  So when CANF and its constituents contribute $5,000 to $50,000 to candidates their voice and cause is more likely to be heard.

            In 1996, there were six congressmen and senators receiving over $25,000 from CANF and associated individuals.  All six were leaders in either initiating Helms-Burton or writing the legislation.  Helms and Burton who authored the bill received $63,000 and $28,500 respectively.  Robert Torricelli, Robert Menendez, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Lincoln Diaz-Balart (the first two from New Jersey and last two from Florida) all played key roles in both negotiating with President Clinton the terms of the revised bill and encouraging votes from their fellow congressmen.  In order from biggest to smallest Torricelli received $124,500, Menendez $78,500, Ros-Lehtinen $45,000, and Diaz-Balart $34,500.  Additionally, each of these people were the top four lifetime recipients of contributions from Cuban PACs (“Cuban Connection”). 

On the part of the presidential candidates in 1996, Clinton and Dole received healthy amounts from Cuban-American PACs with $49,750 and $58,500 respectively.  Yet of real importance and scrutiny were the actions taken by Clinton.  Had he failed to sign Helms-Burton or failed to allow at the very least symbolic enforcement of Title III before the election he would have lost the support of Cuban voters.  Retaining those votes was to him more important than receiving any contributions from Cuban-American PACs.  In turn he did his part and signed the legislation because of the influence Cuban-Americans could have on his prospects of re-election.


Ethnic groups can indeed have an impact on the passage of legislation.  Helms-Burton specifically demonstrates that they do so through targeted contributions to congressional members and votes to presidential candidates.  This is especially true when examining the amount of contributions both ethnic and business lobbies can give to candidates.  In 1996 alone, business contributed $653 million to candidates while at the same time lobbying them to oppose Helms-Burton.  During that same period CANF contributed under $500,000 nationally and mobilized their ethnic constituency to support candidates favorable to their cause.  The end result was the passage Helms-Burton.  Here pluralism and the ethnic groups comprising it won out over elite theory and business. 

CANF also demonstrated that they do not distinguish one party from the other when supporting legislation.  Legislation (Helms-Burton) written by two Republicans, advocated by both Democrats and Republicans, and signed into law by a Democrat was supported all the way through by Cuban groups.  Business lobbies on the other hand made repeated efforts through congressional hearings and meetings with political leaders to get their well-funded allies to stop Helms-Burton.  They could not do it though, and even failed to reach the tenured, staunch conservative Jesse Helms.  Instead, Helms supported an ethnic lobby that had contributed disproportionately less to his career than business had.  Others like Torricelli had long been the tools of CANF and similar groups, which knew he would support them for their benefits.

It did not make logical sense for Helms-Burton to be passed, much less for Jesse Helms to author it because it short-changed American business, made European allies open to illegal lawsuits, and punished a weak communist government while ignoring other similar and more oppressive regimes.  Non-business groups won out, and in this case we can correlate votes and minimal contributions from ethnic lobbies with political support.  Business lost out and for no other reason than Bill Clinton wanted the Cuban-American vote and congressmen like Helms and Torricelli the money Cuban PACs had to offer.  The strength of the bill on the other hand was in large part due to the actions of the BTTR who caused international tensions to rise.  However, that does not negate the fact that the bill still would have passed both Houses of Congress and received Clinton’s signature, even if it was a weakened version.

At stake in the passage of this bill was not only the integrity of our political leaders to support good policy initiatives, but also the US government’s wiliness to allow business the opportunity to capitalize on golden opportunities.  On both levels Helms-Burton demonstrates that neither of these were upheld.  Whether Helms authored and supported his act for monetary or retaliatory reasons he was ultimately working against the better interests of US policy.  By locking into place this embargo he was penalizing American companies and tarnishing America’s respect among allies.  Clinton is also guilty of failing to support good policy initiative by signing the bill into law.  He did not want to see the embargo continue because he recognized what the US had to gain from opened relations.  Yet, holding back his ability to support healthy policy for business were his electoral concerns in Florida.  Here again it appears elite theory can be dodged by pluralism.

Is it good that US foreign policy and democracy can be influenced by small groups even when it is at the disadvantage of the nation?  I should think clearly not, because at the point our politicians are willing to ignore the better interests of the country in pursuit of electoral benefits every citizen loses out.  From one vantage point it could be said that the government is simply listening to the valid concerns of an organized group.  On the other hand though, the money and votes being directed toward politicians who use their power to regulate policy according to a group’s liking is unfair. 

What does this mean for each group involved, both business and ethnic?  I do not think this case is an absolute sign by any means to indicate that pluralism is stronger than elite theory.  Business groups will continue to exert a huge amount of influence through their enormous contributions.  Pluralists, at least in the form of ethnic lobbies, however will continue to be of great importance in matters of diplomatic policy where concentrated populations hold influence.  Business may win the overall war, but on the part of ethnic lobbies, they will continue to win legislative battles on the foreign policy front.  They do so by ignoring party lines and valuing influential elites, contributing donations strategically rather than in a blanket like business, and utilizing their powerful voting constituency as a check on major political figures.  For all these reasons and the examples demonstrated through current literature, the earlier CDA, and the Helms-Burton Act it can be seen that business groups are not the only interests that matter in American foreign policy.  Other smaller, and more focused groups like ethnic lobbies can and do have influence even when it seems implausible.

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