October 24, 2000
By Rafael Lorente, Ellis Berger And Doreen Hemlock Sun-Sentinel. Web-posted: 11:23 p.m. Oct. 23, 2000
WASHINGTON -- Cuba threatened to cut off all telephone service with the United States on Monday if the families of the Brothers to the Rescue pilots shot down by President Fidel Castro's air force are allowed to collect judgements from Cuban accounts frozen since the 1960s.
"The government of Cuba reserves the right to adopt the measures it judges pertinent, including cutting off all direct and indirect telephone communications between Cuba and the United States," the government said in a front page editorial in the Communist Party newspaper Granma.
Cuba also said it would begin imposing a 10 percent tax on all phone calls between the two countries until the government recovers the money taken from its accounts.
But some question whether Castro's government would cut off communications since Cuba collects about $70 million a year in connection fees from U.S. companies handling calls between the countries. Cuba has cut direct telephone communications in the past, but in recent years has allowed for indirect communications routed through third countries, such as Canada.
Under a recently passed bill that President Clinton has promised to sign, about $50 million of the frozen fundsis to be awarded to the families of three of the men killed when their civilian planes were shot down by Cuban fighter jets in 1996. The legislation, which also affects victims of terrorism who have sued Iran and other countries, would make it easier for the families to collect another $35 million in court-ordered sanctions against Cuba for not taking part in the federal lawsuit over liability in the shoot-down.
The United States holds about $200 million in frozen Cuban assets, said Ron Kleinman, an attorney for the families.
Maggie Khuly, sister of Armando Alejandre, one of the men killed, said countries such as Cuba, Iraq, Iran, Lybia and others are only deterred by economic measures.
"When Cuba was declared guilty of murder in the shooting down of our planes they didn't care at all. But when we started the collection process, they got interested," she said.
AT&T, which operates about half of the estimated 1,000 direct circuits between the United States and Cuba, said Monday that its lawyers were studying the tax law and declined comment.
Officials at the Treasury Department could not be reached for comment.
However, once the legislation takes effect, families could begin to collect within 60 days, Kleinman said.
Telecom executives say Cuba could easily cut off direct phone service to the United States and it was taking steps so that U.S. phone companies, such as AT&T and MCI-Worldcom, won't re-route their calls through third countries.
The upshot is a "super can of worms," said Enrique J. Lopez, president of Coral Gables-based AKL Group, a telecommuniactions consulting group that has done work on Cuban telecommunications.
Lopez said phone companies outside the states would face "an administrative nightmare" trying to re-jigger their billing systems to impose the tax on U.S.-Cuba calls. It would be easier for those companies administratively and politically not to re-route the U.S. calls to and from Cuba, Lopez said.
Rafael Lorente can be reached at email@example.com or 202-824-8225 in Washington. Sun-Sentinel wire services were used to supplement this report.
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