State Department’s Announcement of New Sanctions Against Cuba

On April 17, the U.S. announced new sanctions against Cuba. The major change was eliminating the waiver of Title III of the Helms-Burton (LIBERTAD) Act allowing U.S. litigation by U.S. owners of Cuban property that was expropriated by the Cuban government in the early years of the Cuban Revolution. This Act also allows the U.S. to deny or revoke U.S. visas to any person or corporate officer “involved in the confiscation of property or trafficking in confiscated property,” as well as their family members.[1]

State Department’s Announcement of Sanctions[2]

The State Department made the official announcement of this change in remarks to the Press by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said the following:

  • “In 1996, Congress passed the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, also known as Libertad. Until Title III of that act, United States citizens who had their property confiscated by the Castro regime were given the right to file suit against those who traffic in such properties.”
  • “But those citizens’ opportunities for justice have been put out of reach for more than two decades. For now more than 22 years, every president, every secretary of state has suspended Title III in the hope that doing so would put more pressure on the Cuban regime to transition to democracy.”
  • The “Trump administration recognizes reality. We see clearly that the regime’s repression of its own people and its unrepentant exportation of tyranny in the region has only gotten worse because dictators perceive appeasement as weakness, not strength.”
  • “President Obama’s administration’s game of footsy with the Castros’ junta did not deter the regime from continuing to harass and oppress the heroic Ladies in White, a group of women dedicated to peacefully protesting the regime’s human rights abuses.”
  • “More broadly, the regime continues to deprive its own people of the fundamental freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and association. Indeed, according to NGO reports, Cuban thugs made more than 2,800 arbitrary arrests in 2018 alone. In the run-up to the country’s recent sham constitutional referendum, one that enshrined the Communist Party as the only legal political party in Cuba, the regime harassed, beat, and detained leaders and – opposition leaders and activists. Three hundred and ten people were arbitrarily detained according to the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation.”
  • “Cuba’s behavior in the Western Hemisphere undermines the security and stability of countries throughout the region, which directly threatens United States national security interests. The Cuban regime has for years exported its tactics of intimidation, repression, and violence. They’ve exported this to Venezuela in direct support of the former Maduro regime. Cuban military intelligence and state security services today keep Maduro in power.”
  • “Sadly, Cuba’s most prominent export these days is not cigars or rum; it’s oppression. Detente with the regime has failed. Cozying up to Cuban dictators will always be a black mark on this great nation’s long record of defending human rights.”
  • “For these reasons, I’m announcing that the Trump administration will no longer suspend Title III. Effective May 2nd, . . . the right to bring an action under Title III of the Libertad Act will be implemented in full. I have already informed Congress of my decision.”
  • “Implementing Title III in full means a chance at justice for Cuban Americans who have long sought relief for Fidel Castro and his lackeys seizing property without compensation. For the first time, claimants will be able to bring lawsuits against persons trafficking in property that was confiscated by the Cuban regime. Any person or company doing business in Cuba should heed this announcement.”
  • “In addition to being newly vulnerable to lawsuits, they could be abetting the Cuban regime’s abuses of its own people. Those doing business in Cuba should fully investigate whether they are connected to property stolen in service of a failed communist experiment. I encourage our friends and allies alike to likewise follow our lead and stand with the Cuban people.”
  • “As I said throughout my trip to South America this last week, the Trump administration is committed to helping grow the wave of democracy, good governments, and openness, which is steadily building throughout the entire Western Hemisphere. On my trip last week, I saw these positive changes firsthand, and told our friends and allies that we’re with them. We’re on the side of what’s right and what is just.”
  • “Today we are holding the Cuban Government accountable for seizing American assets. We are helping those whom the regime has robbed get compensation for their rightful property. And we’re advancing human rights and democracy on behalf of the Cuban people.”

Immediately after the Secretary’s remarks, Kimberly  Breier, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, responded to journalists’ questions. Here are her significant responses:

  • “[O]bviously we’ve been in very deep and close contact with our allies in Europe and Canada and around the world as we consulted on this decision over the past several months as the Secretary had been shortening the period of suspension with his previous decisions. I think it’s clear if you look in the macro sense we have broad agreement with our allies in Europe and Canada and around the world on the policy objective, which is to promote democracy in Cuba and to free the Cuban people from the tyranny that they live under.”
  • “We are in broad agreement on this. Where we sometimes disagree is on the best way to achieve that. And I think at the end of the day, you’ll need to speak to the European Union and to our allies as to what response they will have, but I would like to emphasize that European companies that are operating in Cuba will have nothing to worry about if they are not operating on property that was stolen from Americans post-revolution. So I think the vast number of European companies will not have any concerns operating in Cuba.”
  • We “took a decision today based on our laws and our sovereign concerns for the property of American citizens and Europeans will respond as they see fit, and we will continue to work closely with them on this policy and on the policy in Venezuela.”
  • The “decision today is part of the trajectory that started with the Trump Administration’s NSPM-5, which was announced in June of 2017.[3]The objective of that was . . . to support the Cuban people and to deny resources to the regime, and in particular to the security services in Cuba. So this is part of a trajectory. We have since published a Cuba restricted list. We have since amended the restricted list several times, and this is part of the trajectory of the administration trying to ensure that we support the people of Cuba and not the regime of Cuba.”
  • The “Secretary’s decision was about the actions of the Cuban regime; certainly, the actions of the Cuban regime in Venezuela are part of the context of the moment in which we are living. And we are very clear, and . . . the Lima Group, which is a group of 12 countries in the Western Hemisphere, for the very first time this week announced its concern over Cuba’s role in Caracas and made public its concern, and called on the Cuban regime to support the transition in Caracas. So I think it’s a very important moment in our relations in the hemisphere as well.”
  • Over “the past two years building off of NSPM-5 and looking at the various tools that we have to implement the President’s vision for how we would conduct this policy. I think you’re going to be seeing quite a bit more from us, and that this is the beginning of a new process on this that recognizes the reality on the ground in Cuba, which is in the past 20-plus years the underlying reality in Cuba has not changed for the average Cuban..[There was no direct response to the question about whether the U.S. was considering t returning Cuba to the State Sponsors of Terrorism list.[4]]
  • “There will not be any exemptions [from this new sanction for any U.S. company doing business in Cuba].” (Emphasis added.)
  • The “Foreign Claims Settlement Commission . . . has certified nearly 6,000 claims for property confiscated in Cuba with a total value of approximately 2 billion. With interest, we believe that value is somewhere in the $8 billion range. The most recent estimate we have from 1996, at the time that the law was enacted, that there could be up to 200,000 uncertified claims that were not certified by the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, and that value could very easily be in the tens of billions of dollars. But it will depend on, of course, whether claimants decide to pursue legal cases or not.”[5]

The day before the official announcement in an embargoed briefing for journalists, an unidentified senior State Department official said that foreigners who have been trafficking in such properties  have “had over 20 years of profiting from property stolen from American citizens.”

Hints of This and Other Anti-Cuba Measures[6]

For the last several weeks the Administration has been hinting that more anti-Cuba measures were coming.

One such  hint came from Vice President Mike Pence at a U.N. Security council meeting on April 10, when he said, “For decades, Cuba has tried to create client states across our region.  While normal countries export goods, Cuba exports tyranny and strong-arm tactics.  Even now, Cuban military and intelligence services train and support and equip Venezuela’s secret police as they silence opponents, jail and torture members of the opposition.” Pence added, “Last week, the United States took action to sanction ships transporting Venezuelan oil to Cuba.  And soon, at President Trump’s direction, the United States will announce additional action to hold Cuba accountable for its malign influence in Venezuela.” (Emphasis added.)

 Two days later, President Trump issued his Proclamation on Pan American Day and Pan American Week, which said, in part, “Sadly, the people of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua continue to live under tyranny and authoritarianism.  The brutality and corruption of the illegitimate former regime in Venezuela has crippled the country and brought it to ruin.  We must not forget that the struggle is one between dictatorship and democracy, between oppression and freedom, and between continued suffering for millions of Venezuelans and an opportunity for a renewed future of freedom and prosperity.  The community of democracies in our Western Hemisphere must continue to support the people of Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua as they fight for the restoration of democracy and liberty. (Emphases added.)

Another tip came from the State Department when it announced that  that the U.S. was adding four companies and nine vessels  to the list of Venezuelan companies  that were sanctioned for transporting oil to Cuba.[7] The Department also said the U.S.“will continue to do all we can to stand up against Cuba’s support for the former Maduro regime and its hostility to the Venezuelan people’s aspiration to a peaceful, prosperous, democratic future. Cuba’s intervention only seeks to delay the inevitable—the peaceful transition back to freedom and democracy that is underway in Venezuela, led by the Venezuelan people, Interim President Juan Guaido, and the National Assembly.”  (Emphasis added.)

Another hint came directly from Secretary Pompeo on April 14 in a speech in Cucata, Colombia, when he said, “ “Cubans must understand too that there will be cost associated with continued support of Nicolas Maduro.”  (Emphasis added.)

Conclusion

Later the same day (April 17), U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton in a speech in Miami addressed these new sanctions and other santi-Cuba measures that will be discussed in a subsequent post. Another post will review the responses to these new measures from the U.S., Cuba, Europe and Canada.

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[1]  Baker, Trump to Increase Pressure on Cuba by Lifting Lawsuit Limits, N.Y. Times (April 16, 2019); Reuters, In Major Shift, Trump to Allow Lawsuits Against Foreign Firms, N.Y. Times (April 16, 2019); Assoc. Press, Trump to Allow Lawsuits Over US Properties Seized in Cuba, N.Y. Times (April 16, 2019); DeYoung, Trump administration will allow U.S. citizens to sue over property seized after 1959,  Wash. Post (April 16, 2019).

[2] State Dep’t, [Secretary Pompeo’s] Remarks to the Press (April 17, 2019); State Dep’t, Briefing With Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Kimberly Breier (April 17, 2019).

[3] NSPM refers to National Security Presidential Memorandum on Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba (June 16, 2017). See President Trump Announces Reversal of Some Cuba Normalization Policies, dwkcommentaries.com (June 19, 2017).

[4] See posts listed in the “Cuba: State Sponsor of Terrorism?” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[5]  See Resolution of U.S. and Cuba Damage Claims, dwkcommentaries.com (April 6, 2015).

[6] White House, Remarks by Vice President Pence at a Special Session of the United Nations Security Council  on the Crisis in Venezuela/New York, NY (April 10, 2019); White House,  Proclamation on Pan American Day and Pan American Week (April 15, 2019); State Dep’t, The United States Takes Action To End Cuba’s Malign Influence on Venezuela (April 12, 2019).

 

Proposed Resolution of U.S.-Cuba Issues

The 60 years of U.S. hostility towards Cuba (with the two-year respite (2014-2016) under President Obama) have left many important unresolved issues.[1] Here is at least a partial list of those issues:

  1. U.S. ending embargo (blockade) of Cuba?
  2. U.S. response to Cuba’s claims for alleged damages from embargo & other acts?
  3. U.S. closing its detention facility at Guantanamo Bay?
  4. U.S. paying Cuba for use of Guantanamo Bay, 1960— ?
  5. U.S. returning Guantanamo Bay to Cuba or entering into new lease of territory?
  6. Cuba paying U.S. persons for expropriated property, 1959-60?
  7. U.S. ending unilateral “democracy promotion” activities in Cuba?
  8. Mutual extradition of the other’s criminal suspects & convicts?
  9. Cuba improving human rights?
  10. U.S. & Cuba resolving responsibility for medical problems of U.S. diplomats in Cuba, 2016-??
  11. U.S. ending or modifying U.S. ban on transactions with certain Cuban entities on the State Department’s “Cuba Restricted List”?
  12. U.S. possible restoration of parole for Cuban medical professionals?
  13. U.S. possible allowance of lawsuits for expropriated Cuban property?
  14. U.S. possible re-designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” due to Cuban military aid to Venezuela?
  15. U.S. possible adoption of other U.S. hostile acts against Cuba proposed by President Trump, National Security Advisor Bolton, Secretary of State Pompeo, Senator Rubio, et al.?

Many of these issues were discussed in the meetings of the two countries in 2015-17 although the substance of the discussions have not been publicly disclosed.

If I were President with a supportive Congress,  I would work for the following comprehensive bilateral resolution:of these issues:

  • U.S. ends embargo (blockade) of Cuba;
  • U.S. ends unilateral “democracy promotion” efforts in Cuba;
  • U.S. closes detention facility at Guantanamo Bay;
  • U.S. pays Cuba for its use of Guantanamo Bay, 1960 to date;
  • U.S. and Cuba enter into new lease of Guantanamo Bay at fair market value rental;
  • U.S. pays Cuba for alleged damages caused by U.S. embargo (blockade);
  • Cuba agrees to pay fair market value, with interest, to U.S. owners of expropriated property (potentially with funds provided by U.S. paying Cuba for past use of Guantanamo Bay; for future use of Guantanamo Bay under new lease; and for alleged damages caused by U.S. embargo (blockade));
  • U.S. abolishes Title III of Helms-Burton Act allowing U.S. owners of expropriated property to sue persons trafficking in property owned by U.S. persons that were expropriated by Cuba (1959-60);
  • U.S. agrees not to reintroduce parole for Cuban professional medical personnel;
  • U.S. agrees not to re-designate Cuba as “state sponsor of terrorism;”
  • U.S. and Cuba enter into new agreement on mutual extraditions;
  • U.S. and Cuba agree on bilateral ways to improve Cuban human rights and Internet access; and
  • U.S. and Cuba resolve issues regarding medical problems of US diplomats in Cuba (2016-??).

The proposal to have the U.S. use some or all of its payments to Cuba for Guantanamo usage and alleged Cuban damages from the embargo for the U.S. to pay for the U.S. claims for Cuba’s expropriations  is based on the painful realization that Cuba does not have the resources to pay for any significant portion of these U.S. claims.

Cuba repeatedly has asserted that the U.S. use of Guantanamo Bay is an illegal occupation and the property should be returned to Cuba. Because of the  U.S. argument to legally have occupied the territory under the 1903 lease and because of U.S. current national security concerns, however, the U.S. would not and should not agree to this Cuban proposal, especially since Cuba is developing closer relationships with Russia and China, which potentially could occupy Guantanamo to enhance their threats to the U.S.

Failure to reach agreement on any of these issues may well result in narrowing the issues, and any unresolved issues should be submitted to a binding international arbitration at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague in the Netherlands. Based on this blogger’s experience as a corporate litigator in U.S. courts, I note that many cases like the one proposed for arbitration of the Cuban and U.S. claims frequently are settled before they go to trial.

One example of narrowing the issues is Cuba’s recognition with other countries that it has an international legal obligation to pay for expropriated property, which is the major premise of the U.S. claims for expropriated property. That would leave important, subsidiary issues: are the claimants valid owners of the Cuban properties; what were the fair market values of the properties at the time of expropriation; and what is a fair rate of interest on the claims?

I invite anyone with other ideas for a comprehensive bilateral resolution of outstanding issues or objections to my proposed resolution to share them in reasoned comments to this post.

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[1] These issues are discussed in many posts listed in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.