Cuban exiles and other foes of Cuba's communist government woke up Monday morning hearing that President Trump was going to get tougher on the regime. Specifically, they expected Trump to activate an unused tool of the Cuban embargo known as Title III. He did. But what they got instead was more of a letdown than a crackdown.
WLRN's Luis Hernandez spoke with Americas correspondent Tim Padgett about Title III – and why a lot of Cuban-Americans right now say it's still an unused tool.
Excerpts from their conversation:
HERNANDEZ: Tim what is Title III – and why is it such a big deal to folks who want to see an end to communism in Cuba?
PADGETT: Title III is often called the strongest weapon in the Cuban embargo arsenal. It's part of the 1996 Helms-Burton law that tightened the embargo. And it lets Americans – in this case mostly Cuban exile families – go to U.S. federal court and sue companies that use property in Cuba that was taken from them by the communist revolution back in the 1960s.
So we're talking about potentially thousands of lawsuits claiming millions of dollars. But the larger hope was that it would have a chilling effect on foreign investment in Cuba. The thinking was that it would undermine the island's already threadbare economy and therefore undermine the regime itself.
So why has no U.S. president ever exercised the option to put Title III into action?
Because those presidents worried that other countries, like Spain and Canada that have a big business presence in Cuba, could retaliate. They can turn around and do the same thing to U.S. companies somewhere else. They didn't want to risk that.
Cuban-American attorney Pedro Freyre of the Akerman law firm in Miami, who advises companies on these Cuba issues, put it to me this way:
"All the presidents, both Democrat and Republican, perceived Title III as something that would be detrimental to U.S. interests – particularly business interests."
President Trump seemed willing to risk it as a way of paying back the more hardline Cuban exile voters here who he feels helped him win Florida in the 2016 election.
Can we say that President Trump is actually implemented Title III now?
Technically, yes. Practically, no. What he did say was U.S. citizens may now sue Cuban companies that use confiscated property. But that's really all but meaningless to the property claimants, because even if they win their lawsuit here they really can't expect to collect any money from a Cuban entity.
What's most significant is that Trump is exempting European and other foreign companies that do business in Cuba – in other words, the very companies that are the biggest and ripest Title III targets for these claimants.
I spoke with Miami attorney Marcel Felipe. He's a Cuban-American and head of the Inspire America Foundation, a pro-democracy NGO, who's representing Cuban exile claimants. And as you'll hear he was hoping to get one lawsuit rolling for a family whose confiscated property is now part of the Havana airport:
"We're in the process of identifying all of the different companies that would be implicated and trafficking on their property in what is now the José Martí International Airport. The airport is a hub where you're
going to have a lot of different foreign owners. Definitely one of the ground zeros."
Even if Trump included foreign companies, would activating Title III really work?
That's what we thought we were going to find out. But there's no certainty that it would work. It would be hard to collect from companies that don't have assets in theU.S., for example. On top of that, a lot of countries like Canada have passed laws that don't allow money from Cuban embargo-related lawsuits to be collected inside their borders. Still it's likely that it would have created enough uncertainty for companies to have that chilling effect on foreign investment in Cuba.
Are Cuban exiles who voted for Trump feeling let down right now?
Well, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who is Cuban American and was pushing Trump to activate Title III, tweeted that this is just a "first step" and that "justice is coming."
Marcel Felipe put it this way:
"I'm hopeful that while this is just symbolic, with no real teeth, it is the first step towards something that does have real teeth."
But if you're a Cuban exile and you expected Trump to roll back normalized ties between the U.S. and Cuba – yeah, you're probably wondering if you're getting your bang for your vote.