Text of Law
Officially the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act of 1996, this act came after the downing of two civilian aircraft by Cuba which had violated Cuba's national sovereignty by entering its airspace. It was signed by President Clinton, who had lost Florida's electoral votes in the last election. Uncoincidentally, in the '96 election, Clinton captured Florida's votes.
The U.S. Government says the intent of the law is to bring Western-style democracy to Cuba. They intend to do this by making living conditions so awful that the people will revolt against the government of Fidel Castro.
The law has drawn international criticism for a provision allowing U.S. companies to sue foreign companies that work with the Cuban government. This is justified because the U.S. says they are using "stolen" U.S. property.
In order to be able to sue, you had to have lost $50,000 or more to the Revolution. In 1959, this was a very large amount of money, so the bill was mainly intended to benefit wealthy Americans. Lawyers for the Bacardi corporation wrote much of the law; the bill has come to be known as the "Bacardi Law" by opponents.
After the Cuban Revolution, economic aggression from the U.S. caused Cuba to nationalize all American property. The Cuban Government offered to reimburse American companies at the book value of the property, but none of them accepted.
The European Union, Canada, Latin America, Russia, and others have all condemned this law. They consider it extraterritorial and unfair. One provision forbids executives of companies dealing with Cuba using U.S. property and their families from entering the U.S.. This has insulted Canada so much that many called for a boycott of Florida.
The act has been said to violate international trade law, which it quite obviously does. Both the OAS and UN also disallow using economic measures to influence foreign governments.
To avoid this pressure, President Clinton has waived enforcement of the part of the law that lets U.S. companies sue foreign ones.
One other provision of the law, which many in the U.S. have fought against, fines Americans $50,000 for travelling to Cuba.
This law has been largely unsuccessful. Every Cuban knows what the U.S. is trying to do, and the Cuban Government has had an easy time blaming the U.S. for its economic troubles. Whether or not this is fair, Cubans have been united more by the Helms-Burton Act than anything else in a long time. Anger at the U.S. has also grown as a result of this act worldwide.