Sen. Jesse Helms, still a resolute Cold Warrior, has proposed what was once unthinkable: a federal program of food aid for communist Cuba. Does the overture signal a shift to a softer stance toward Fidel Castro? Is Helms, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a major force behind Cuba-related legislation, ready to scale back the 37-year-old U.S. trade embargo against the island?Not even close.In fact, Helms' latest Cuba project has all the trappings of a holding action. As the debate over Cuba policy evolves rapidly, a movement to drop or diminish the sanctions -- of which the senior senator from North Carolina is the chief congressional supporter -- is picking up both speed and powerful advocates.Pope John Paul II's recent visit to Cuba shone a spotlight on the effects of the embargo on the island's people. The pope strongly criticized the U.S. embargo on food and medicine several times during his late-January visit, decrying "oppressive economic measures, unjust and ethically unacceptable, imposed from outside the country." Such sanctions, he declared, are "always deplorable because they hurt the most needy."The papal mission prompted a new round of scrutiny and criticism of "Helms-Burton," the controversial legislation that tightened the embargo in March 1996. Complicated and litigious, Helms-Burton is primarily known for its "extraterritorial" provisions, which target foreign companies with legal threats that heighten the cost of doing business in Cuba. The measure also codifies the embargo in unprecedented ways, denying the president much of his power to unilaterally lift the sanctions. Significant alterations in U.S.-Cuba policy, if they are to happen, must now come from Congress."We can now say adios, Fidel," Helms declared as Helms-Burton became law. But now it's Helms' law that is under siege, in the United States and abroad. Two years of defending Helms-Burton's sanctions against defiant U.S. trading partners has left a bitter taste at the State Department and the White House. And now a business-led coalition is rallying behind proposed legislation that would drop all restrictions on the sale of medicines and food to Cuba.Calling itself Americans for Humanitarian Trade with Cuba, the coalition was assembled by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Since the effort was launched in January, some 600 corporations and business groups have signed on. So have 140 church and human rights organizations.Their chief objective is to win passage of the "Dodd-Torres" bill, which would authorize the unrestricted sale of food and medicine to Cuba. While many of the bill's corporate backers are most interested in puncturing the embargo because they are currently cut out of the Cuban market, the coalition stresses the human costs of continuing the current policy. Its mission statement argues that "to continue to deny this one group of people the food and medicines that are needed to sustain life achieves nothing. Forty years of the strongest embargo in our history has resulted in increased misery for the people of Cuba while making no change whatsoever in the political makeup of the Cuban government."Castro may be the target, supporters of the bill say, but the sanctions strike the entire Cuban population. Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, says that "it's morally wrong for the United States to use 11 million Cuban people as ammunition in an economic war against one man."The coalition packs considerable clout: former Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, former Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci, former Defense Secretary and CIA Director James Schlesinger, Archer Daniels Midland chair Dwayne Andreas, and film directors Oliver Stone and Francis Ford Coppola are active members.The voice of the Vatican has added weight to their arguments. In the wake of the pope's visit, religious opponents of the embargo have increased their lobbying activities. On Feb. 2 the U.S. Catholic Conference, which represents 186 dioceses, endorsed Dodd-Torres as "a noble and needed humanitarian gesture." In the expanding debate over sanctions against Cuba, those advocating Christian charity have come down squarely on the side of the opening up trade with the island.Sen. Helms and his hard-line backers recognize that the papal protest and the Dodd-Torres bill pose a serious challenge to the Helms-Burton approach. As the tide starts to turn against Helms' Cuba initiatives, the senator and his allies in the anti-Castro exile community have hatched desperate damage-control plots -- some ostensibly altruistic, others allegedly violent.Helms began by taking an unprecedented step, dispatching two top foreign-policy aides to Cuba to witness the pope's visit and meet with Cuban officials.Marc Thiessen is the spokesperson for the Helms-led Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Ralph Noriega serves as committee staff director and Helms' point man for policy toward Latin America. These two anti-communist stalwarts probably never expected to visit Cuba during the Castro era, but given the mounting challenges to the embargo, special measures were in order. "The pope made a bold move" by visiting Cuba, Thiessen noted after the trip. "We had to do something to capitalize on it."Thiessen and Noriega made some remarkable contacts, among them Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's parliament. Alarcon, widely viewed as the third most powerful official on the island (after Fidel and his brother Raul Castro), later spoke about his hour-long discussion with Helms' men in Havana. "I am not going to exaggerate the affair," he said. "I do not believe it is easy to change people of a conservative formation ... But it has been a very respectful dialogue."Thiessen downplayed the meeting, telling the Associated Press that the improbable gathering of Helms and Castro representatives amounted to "a cordial but nonsubstantive talk." Helms' men had not gone to Cuba to negotiate.Besides, the real work to be done was in Washington. As Dodd-Torres was introduced, Helms set in motion a counter-proposal. Working with the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), a Miami-based group that helped the senator draft and secure passage of Helms-Burton, Helms' staff prepared its own plan for "humanitarian aid" to Cuba.The Cuban Assistance and Relief Act of 1998, as the proposal is called, would add Cuba to the list of beneficiaries of Public Law 480 -- the "Food for Peace" program. Any U.S. donations would therefore come with strings attached: namely, the food could only be distributed by non-governmental organizations. (The act has not been formally introduced in Congress, though Helms has announced his intention to sponsor it.)As is widely understood in Washington, the Castro government is not inclined to accept an aid plan that seeks to circumvent Cuban authorities, viewing such offers as a breach of Cuban sovereignty. Castro has already denounced Helms' plan, calling it a "dirty trick" with preconditions that would be "humiliating" to accept. Cubans, Castro said, will not "lick the boots of those who are stabbing you with a dagger." While Cuba will "accept with dignity that any country wants to help us," Castro said, "we are not disposed to play the role of beggars." According to a draft of the act obtained by the "Miami Herald", the proposal "puts the burden of accepting or rejecting such humanitarian aid squarely on the Cuban regime." Since Castro's negative reaction to the offer was easy to predict, critics of the embargo are interpreting the Helms/CANF proposal as a provocation and spoiler rather than an act of compassion."I see it as a reaction to the Dodd and Torres bills, because they are gaining momentum," Katie Donahue, deputy Washington director of Americans for Humanitarian Trade with Cuba, told "The Independent". According to Donahue, the Dodd-Torres proposal now has 21 co-sponsors in the Senate and 101 in the House of Representatives. While the proposal faces major hurdles -- in particular, the Republican-led foreign policy committees in Congress -- Dodd-Torres has already marshaled more support than any previous attempt to authorize food and medical sales to Cuba.The "Miami Herald" editorialized that while Helms and the CANF are "to be credited for addressing issues of humanitarian concern," the "details of this legislative proposal ... raise questions about its ultimate good intent."Helms' proposal put him in the rarest of positions: He also came under attack from the right. Word of the aid plan began to leak during the pope's trip to Cuba, sparking quick protests from ultra-conservatives in the Cuban exile community and from anti-Castro members of Congress.Thiessen was quick to clear up any confusion. "There will be no initiative that in any way loosens the embargo," pledged Helms' spokesperson. "The embargo is locked in, here to stay."The CANF echoed that sentiment. "We want to make it absolutely clear to all concerned that we will not allow anyone to use this initiative to ease any restrictions on the Castro regime or weaken the existing U.S. embargo," said foundation president Francisco Hernandez.Helms himself has indicated that the aid plan portends no relaxation of current sanctions. "Most importantly," the senator said in a Jan. 29 statement explaining the proposal, "it will keep firmly in place a U.S. policy that is committed to economic and political freedom for all Cubans: the economic embargo on the Castro regime."Even if Helms' aid offer were accepted, Cuba would still be denied the chance to buy food from the United States. And it still would be fenced off from sorely needed medicines and hospital equipment that are available only from U.S. companies.Robert Wittenberg, president of the American Association of World Health, which last year produced a major report on how the embargo constrains Cuba's public health system, told "The Independent" that "humanitarian donations are great, they help, but they don't mitigate the effects of the embargo." If the objective is to alleviate Cubans' suffering, Wittenberg says, then "charity is an inadequate alternative to free trade in medicine, medical supplies and food."The embargo on Cuba was produced by powerful lobbyists. Above and beyond Helms' humanitarian-aid gambit, there are serious questions about the senator's continued collaboration with the CANF, the most effective foreign-policy lobby in the United States.The anti-Castro group has exercised a strong and often controversial influence over U.S.-Cuba policy since the early 1980s. Last year the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity (CPI), a congressional watchdog group, produced a detailed report on the CANF's political machine. Since 1979, according to the study, leaders of the CANF have contributed an estimated $3.2 million to U.S. politicians and candidates.Helms has been a major beneficiary. In April 1995, a Miami fundraiser hosted by CANF and the Bacardi Corp. netted the senator $66,000. (Bacardi lawyer Ignacio Sanchez helped write the portions of Helms-Burton that deal with property issues. The company is seeking to recoup distilleries lost to Cuba's revolutionary government almost 40 years ago.) And two political action committees that supported Helms-Burton, the Free Cuba PAC and the Human Rights Campaign Fund, contributed $10,000 and $11,467, respectively, to Helms' 1996 re-election campaign.While most of CANF's work is directed toward maintaining congressional support for the embargo, reports indicate that foundation officials might have backed more extreme measures to oust Castro. While the CANF professes that "all our actions and all our programs are directed toward a non-violent solution of the Cuban problem," federal investigators have reportedly discovered links between CANF officials and a recent plot to assassinate Castro.Last Oct. 27, agents of the U.S. Coast Guard apprehended four Cuban exiles when their boat, La Esperanza, broke down near Puerto Rico. On board was a hidden cache of military gear including fatigues, night-vision goggles and two 50-caliber sniper rifles. The captain, Angel Manuel Alfonso, told the Coast Guard that the weapons were to be used to assassinate the Cuban leader at an upcoming conference in Venezuela.According to Florida registration records, the boat is owned by a Miami company called Nautical Sports, which is headed by Juan Antonio Llama, a veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion brigade who happens to be a CANF director. The CANF connection goes further: According to FBI documents obtained by the "Miami Herald", one of the $6,800 rifles was purchased by foundation president Hernandez.In December, both Llama and Hernandez were subpoenaed by a federal grand jury that is examining the assassination scheme. To date, neither CANF official has been charged for his alleged role.While the FBI continues to investigate, the incident raises hard questions for Sen. Helms: Does he condone assassination attempts against Castro? Has he pressed his friends at CANF for answers about the alleged plot? If Helms' men in Miami are charged in the case, will the senator refuse their counsel and donations in the future?Helms' foreign-policy staff did not respond to "The Independent"'s numerous requests for an interview to address these questions.The senator's maneuvers to sustain a rigid U.S. policy toward Cuba are rife with intrigue, plump with potential scandal. But if the embargo ultimately falls, it will probably be for other reasons.When the "Washington Post" editorialized in favor of lifting the ban on food and medicine sales last month, the newspaper argued that the "deliberate infliction of pain on people Americans supposedly wish to help is an unsustainable policy." And it posed this question: "Who do you think qualifies as a better guide to the challenging of Communist power structures -- Francisco Hernandez of the Cuban Foundation, Jesse Helms, Bill Clinton or John Paul?"