The first lawsuits against a corporation have been filed under Title III of the Helms-Burton Act — a tool unleashed by the Trump Administration as part of a multi-pronged strategy against the Cuban government.
The section of the Helms-Burton Act allows individuals or corporations that had property confiscated by the Cuban government after the Cuban Revolution to sue corporations that use those confiscated properties in business dealings. Title III had been suspended by successive U.S. presidents since it came into law in 1996, until last month when the Trump Administration announced in Miami it would allow the lawsuits to move forward.
“Americans who have had their private and hard-earned property stolen in Cuba will finally be able to sue,” national security advisor John Bolton said last month in Little Havana.
The first of the suits are against Carnival Cruise Lines — a company that has its corporate headquarters in South Florida — relating to confiscated docks it uses to bring passengers into the island nation. The Cuban government confiscated the docks from the Havana Docks Corporation and La Marítima in the 1960s.
“In the 1960s the Castro brothers and the communist friends came and stole our property from my grandfather at gunpoint," said Mickael Behn, the president of Havana Docks Corporation. "That was a business his father built in 1917 to supply and modernize, and it was a successful business. The cruise lines have been using Havana Docks port infrastructure for several years without consequence to them ... They knew very well the ownership, it wasn’t a secret to them or anyone else.”
“They just hoped my family would die and fade away,” he said. “We won’t.”
Javier Garcia-Bengochea is the descendant of owners of La Marítima, which owned similar confiscated dock facilities in Santiago de Cuba. “I began this crusade for the full implementation of Title III almost 10 years ago,” he said. “I was repeatedly told amidst the laughter that this was a hopeless endeavor and that it was a waste of time and money, and yet here we are today.”
Canival did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission in 1971 certified that the Havana Docks Corporation had a claim against the Cuban government. The commission found that the value of the properties in 1971 was $8,684,360.18, the equivalent of about $54.5 million in today’s dollars.
There are nearly 6,000 certified claims of American property confiscated by the Cuban government, totaling an estimated $8 billion in current values. The State Department expects a sharp uptick in property claims by Cuban-Americans now that Title III is in effect.
Unleashing the ability to sue companies that use confiscated properties in business dealings in Cuba has been celebrated by those who oppose the Cuban communist government.
“I think Title III is the strongest possible measure the U.S. can impose on Cuba,” Ana Carbonell, a Republican political consultant in Miami and a Cuban exile activist, told WLRN last month.
Others say allowing these lawsuits to go forward will be detrimental to U.S. interests and could isolate the country internationally. Several companies owned by U.S. allies in Europe and Canada, for instance, could now be legally liable for their business dealings on the island. Upon passage of the Helms-Burton Act, the European Union pushed back against the U.S. Congress, and the World Trade Organization has indicated it might dispute Title III now that it is being implemented.
Every President from Bill Clinton to Donald Trump only a few months ago cited these potential diplomatic strains as a reason to prevent Title III from being fully implemented.
“These legal tensions could also spill over into other aspects of bilateral relationships with U.S. allies, as in Venezuela,” notes Engage Cuba, a group working to deepen trade and business relationships with the island, on the group’s website.
Legal experts express doubts that U.S. companies like Carnival Cruise Lines can be held legally liable for doing business with confiscated properties because they are not operating on confiscated properties, and they are simply taking people to and from them. The U.S. Office of Foreign Assett Control took that interpretation when it issued licences for Carnival and other companies that travel to and from the U.S. and Cuba, under the Obama Administration.
Nevertheless, activists see the lawsuits filed against Carnival as a turning point in the fight against the Cuban government. Sylvia Iriondo organized protests against Carnival Cruise Lines when it started sailing ships to Cuba, as president of the Mothers and Women Against Repression, a Cuban non-governmental organization.
“This is an extraordinary day for justice, and a step forward in the right direction to end impunity in Cuba and to end the trafficking in stolen properties that were illegally confiscated without compensation,” said Iriondo. “The Cuban government did the wrong thing but the commercial enterprises are cooperating with the Cuban government in forwarding the wrong thing. It’s a matter of money versus principles.”