President Bush said Monday that he is extending for six months a provision suspending the opportunity for U.S. citizens and corporations to sue foreign firms using property in Cuba that was seized from Americans after Fidel Castro took power in 1959.
The law allowing such lawsuits was passed in 1996, after an attack in which Cuban MIG fighters shot down two small airplanes flown by anti-Castro exiles operating out of Miami.
The president had been widely expected to continue the suspension, which President Clinton had issued, although his political base in South Florida includes the politically active Cuban American community, a center of opposition to Castro.
On Friday, in a measure that was seen as a step to offset criticism of the anticipated suspension, Bush ordered toughened enforcement of long-standing sanctions against Cuba and said he would expand his administration's support for human rights activists on the Communist island.
Executive Director Joe Garcia of the Cuban American National Foundation, one of the leading lobbying groups opposing Castro, told Reuters news agency that, on balance, "we are very pleased by the action this administration has taken since it came to power."
Asked Monday whether he intended to continue the suspensions, Bush said during a picture-taking session in the Oval Office, "I do."
Later, Bush notified Congress that he was waiving the provision just hours before a midnight deadline.
The president said in a written statement that the six-month extension is "necessary for the national interest of the United States and will expedite the transition to democracy in Cuba."
"Real differences remain between the United States and our allies concerning the best methods for pursuing change in Cuba," the president said.
Bush argued that the suspension would encourage support for the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba and would "further strengthen, not weaken," the multinational effort to push Cuba toward democracy and respect for human rights.
The 1996 law, known as the Helms-Burton Act, seeks to punish countries that do business with Cuba.
It has been opposed by the European Union, where companies have invested on the island, and supported by some American firms and Cuban Americans seeking to regain confiscated property there.
The European Union expressed satisfaction.
"If confirmed, this is what we had hoped and expected," a spokesman said in Brussels.
Clinton routinely issued the suspensions. He fended off pressure from conservatives in general and anti-Castro activists in particular who sought to toughen the sanctions the United States has imposed for four decades against Cuba.
While Bush's anticipated action changes no policy, it would remove one irritant in the United States' political and economic relations with Europe. The president leaves Wednesday for a six-day visit to London; Genoa, Italy; Rome; and Pristina, Yugoslavia.
European opposition to the measure has been built around efforts to increase trade with Cuba and improve living conditions in the Caribbean nation.