Additional State Department Briefing on Helms-Burton Changes

A prior post discussed the changes in U.S. implementation of Title III of the Helms-Burton Act that were announced on April 17 by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and discussed by an Assistant Secretary of State. That same day an unidentified senior official of the Department held a briefing for journalists, apparently at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Here are highlights of that briefing.[1]

General Comments on Helms-Burton Act

“[U]nder Title III, Congress gave U.S. nationals with a claim to confiscated property in Cuba the right to file a lawsuit against the people or companies who were trafficking in that property.  But for more than 22 years, U.S. Presidents or Secretaries of State have suspended American’s rights under Title III which Congress authorized when both necessary to U.S. national interests and necessary to expedite a transition to democracy in Cuba.”

“Now our decision on Title III is fundamentally related to the actions of the Cuban regime.  After suspending Title III for more than 22 years in a row we still have not seen Cuba transition to democracy.  In fact the opposite is true.  Cuba shows no sign that it will achieve democracy in the near future as the repressive political situation in Cuba has persisted.  And even under a new leader in Cuba, nothing has fundamentally changed.  The recent illegitimate constitutional referendum on February 24th simply entrenched the one-party rule in Cuba, and of course the human rights situation in Cuba remains abysmal.”

“But not only has the situation in Cuba worsened, Cuba also actively undermines democracy in the region as a whole.  We’ve seen it export dictatorship, export torture, export arbitrary detentions, and export the harassment and intimidation of dissidents and opposition factors.  And in all of these actions Cuba continues to prop up the former Maduro regime which denies Venezuelans their right to self-determination.”

“So under the Trump administration U.S. policy towards Cuba will reflect reality.  Twenty-two years of suspending Title III has failed to advance the goal set forth by the legislation in the first place.  Secretary Pompeo’s decision today recognizes the truth of that failure and enacts Congress’ common sense policy to starve the Cuban regime of the wealth it needs to hold onto power while simultaneously supporting the people of Cuba.”

“So ending the suspension of Title III sends a strong signal against trafficking in these confiscated properties as well as opens a path for U.S. claimants whose property was confiscated by the Cuban regime to seek compensation.”

“[S]tarting with NSPM5 [National Security Presidential Memorandum], this administration has made clear its intent on holding the Cuban regime accountable for repression on the island and maligned activity overseas, while at the same time supporting the Cuban people.  And this administration will not allow those trafficking in confiscated property off the hook for their complicity in the regime’s malign behavior.”

“The purpose of the legislation as it was originally passed was to ensure that there was justice for those who had their property illegally confiscated by the Cuban regime.  So of course any European company, any American company, any company around the world that traffics in property that was confiscated by the regime does have the possibility of being hit by this legislation.”

“So I wouldn’t be comfortable giving an assessment on how many companies that applies to, but the LIBERTAD Act also does include certain conditions and requirements to bring an action under Title III.  So in that instance we advise potential plaintiffs to consult with legal counsel.”

Impact of U.S. Changes on Europe

“{O]ou relationship with our partners in Europe is very critical to this administration.  We’ve consulted with them numerous times.  We’ve taken into account their considerations and their concerns. . . . we all agree on the broader strategy to promote democracy and human rights in Cuba.  There is some disagreement on the tactics to get there.”

“[W]hether the Europeans would be taking this to the World Trade Organization, I would just defer to them on their response and what their actions will be, and just simply reiterate that we here are implementing the laws passed by Congress.”

“With this . . . implementation of this legislation we are not targeting any specific countries or specific companies.  The Secretary has made very clear that this is a decision not to waive, that has no exceptions.  So there is no direct targeting reflected here.”

“And in terms of the broader message that we’re trying to communicate writ large, it is the administration’s continued focus on holding the Cuban regime accountable for human rights abuses, and again, simultaneously supporting the people of Cuba in their fight for democracy. [No response to question about impact on Russia.]

“[T[his administration is very committed and clear-eyed in its focus on bringing human rights to Cuba.  This decision is part of a long trajectory that started with NSPM5 and continues with the Cuba restricted list with this decision.  I think you will continue to see decisions and announcements from this administration up to and until a moment when we have democracy in Cuba.” [No response to question about possible re-designation of Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.]

Cuba and Venezuela

“We have already begun to undertake a number of actions when it comes to Cuba’s role in Venezuela.  As mentioned, this is based [on] . . . the Cuban regime’s activities, both inside Cuba as well as its actions inside Venezuela.”

So we have been very clear on our intent to ratchet up that pressure.  We’ve also been clear that we’re monitoring the impact, the recent suspensions had on bringing about meaningful reform in Cuba.  And we have seen none of those things”

“{T]his is administration has already come out with a number of sanctions and designations specifically related to Cuba’s, the relationship between Cuba and Venezuela, so that again is an indication that we are willing to ratchet up the pressure with respect to Cuba’s foreign intervention in that country.”{

We would agree, there definitely is military intervention in Venezuela.  It’s not on the part of President Juan Guaido or the United States.  It is uniquely on the part of former regime leader Nicolas Maduro, the Cubans, the Russians, and the Iranians.  It is something that we do not accept.  The Lima Group recently announced that they do not accept this intervention.  It is against all of the principles of non-intervention that are held so dear to the people of the Western Hemisphere.  So we absolutely agree with that assertion.”

“We have no tolerance or patience for the recent landing of Russian military personnel inside Venezuela.  We have no tolerance or patience for the way the Cuban regime treats the people of Venezuela, how it props up the Maduro regime, how it provides repression training and tactics to Sebin and others.  So accordingly we are and will continue to take action.”

“We know that there are Cuban military and intelligence services present in Venezuela.  It is widely known both inside and outside of Venezuela that these officers are deeply entrenched in the Venezuela state.  They are the ones providing physical protection and other support directly to Maduro and to the inner circle.  And Maduro himself has made no secret of his partnership with the Cuban armed forces’

In October 2018 Maduro celebrated the deployment of Cuban Special Forces units which were called the Black Wasps, to the Venezuelan-Colombia border for provocative military exercises, and we’ve seen publicly the provocative actions undertaken by the Russians in recent weeks as well.”

In terms of the next steps that we can do, . . . on April 12th the United States sanctioned four companies for operating in the oil sector of the Venezuelan economy and identified nine vessels as blocked properties pursuant to an Executive Order.  Those actions were themselves a follow-on to previous designations and identifications announced earlier in the month which targeted entities and vessels known to be involved in the transportation of crude oil from Venezuela to Cuba.”

All “of these actions are aligned with our broader Venezuela strategy which seeks to hinder the former Maduro regime’s ability to line its pockets with the profits from natural resources that properly belong to the people of Venezuela but that Maduro himself steals.  And it’s also very consistent with our policy approach when it comes to Cuba, which is making sure that we are again holding the regime accountable for its abuses, both inside the country as well as its abuses outside the country.”

Potential Claims for Expropriated Cuban Property

The U.S. “ Foreign Claims Settlement Commission has certified nearly $2 billion worth of claims.  That doesn’t include possible interest.  The United States did an assessment, . . .in 1996, where we saw that there were over 6,000 certified claims.  However,  . . . [today’s] determination is not specifically focused only on certified claims . . . [and] there could be as many as 200,000 certified claims [and] uncertified claims.  That’s why we can’t give a concrete assessment of exactly how many companies or how much money this would entail.  However it’s possible that it could be in the tens of billions of dollars.”

“Title IV  [of the Helms-Burton Act] was never suspended, and what I can say is that we are going to be ramping up investigations in that space as well.”

Conclusion

Exceedingly important facts are ignored by the U.S. cancelling further waiver of Title III of the Helms-Burton Act, by the U.S. current discussion of the claims by U.S. nationals for Cuba’s expropriation of their property on the island, by the above comments by a State Department official as well as Secretary Pompeo’s April 17 announcement of the changes regarding the Act and by the subsequent briefing by Assistant Secretary Breier, as set forth in a prior post.

First, Cuba has consistently recognized that it has an obligation under international law to pay fair compensation for all property that was expropriated in the early years of the Cuba Revolutionary Government. [2]

Second, Cuba has negotiated and paid such expropriation claims by claimants from other countries. [2]

Third, during  the Obama Administration in 2015-2016 held bilateral meetings with Cuba in Washington, D.C. and Havana on many issues that had accumulated during the 50-plus years of U.S.-Cuba estrangement. One such subject was compensation for U.S. claimants for expropriated property. However, there was no resulting agreement on this and many other subjects. I suspect this was due to the complexity of these many issues, potential U.S. political difficulties in approving any such settlement and Cuba’s lack of money to pay such U.S. claims. [2]

Fourth, as a result, this blog has proposed, in an earlier post, that the U.S. and Cuba should agree to an international arbitration over this and other U.S. and Cuba damage claims. (Remember every Fall at the U.N. General Assembly Cuba alleges large amounts of damages from the U.S. embargo when the Assembly overwhelmingly approves Cuba’s resolution condemning that U.S. embargo and this Cuba claim would also be part of the arbitration.) This is a peaceful, responsible way to settle these claims, and frequently in U.S. litigation over large, competing claims, settlements frequently occur after the parties become further educated about the merits and risks of such claims.

The current U.S. bluster over the Helms-Burton Act totally fails to recognize this solution to the issue of compensation of U.S. nationals for expropriation of their property in Cuba.

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[1] U.S. Embassy in Cuba, Telephonic Press Briefing with Senior State Department Official  on the U.S. Policy Towards Cuba (April 17, 2019).

[2] See posts listed in the “U.S. (Obama) & Cuba (Normalization), 2015” and “U.S. (Obama) & Cuba (Normalization), 2016” sections of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries–Topical: CUBA.

 

Pentagon Planning for Long-Term Continued Use of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba                                                                                                            

U.S. military officials this week told journalists that the U.S. was planning major improvements at Guantanamo Bay. They included a new dining hall with a lifespan of 20 years for guards at the detention center; barracks costing $150 million with a lifespan of 50 years; and a new super-max prison unit to replace one (Camp 7) that is in need of major repairs. [1]

Adm. John Ring, commander of the task force that runs the detention facility or prison, said, “Now my mission is enduring. So I have all sorts of structures that I have been neglecting or just getting by with that now I’ve got to replace.”

These thoughts were echoed by the commander of the guard force, Army Col. Stephen Gabavics, who said, “We’ve got to plan for the long term. We ultimately have to plan for whether or not they [the detainees] are going to be here for the rest of their lives.” He added, “We have the responsibility for the detainees that we have here, regardless of what the political flavor is outside there. We have the responsibility to provide for their safety, care and custody so all that we ask is that we get the resources we need to be able do that.”

Now there are 40 detainees at Guantanamo: five “who have been deemed eligible for transfer;” nine who have been charged in the military commission system and are in proceedings at various stages; and 26 who have neither been charged nor deemed eligible for transfer and who  are being held in indefinite detention under what the U.S. asserts are the international laws of war. Of these, 15 are being held in Camp 7, the super-max unit for “high-value detainees” who were previously in CIA custody.

Conclusion

These U.S. thoughts and plans totally ignore the world-wide outrage over the U.S. operation of this detention facility, the continuing challenges to these operations under U.S. and international law; and Cuba’s repeated insistence that the U.S. continued use of Guantanamo Bay, especially the detention facility, is an illegal occupation. The U.S., on the other hand, has a non-frivolous argument that the use of the territory is legal under Cuba’s 1903 lease of same to the U.S. This blogger has proposed an international arbitration to resolve this dispute and with the ultimate solution being an agreement for a new lease at a much higher annual rental and with conditions on the U.S. use of the facility.[2]

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[1] Assoc. Press, US Military Plans for Future at Guantanamo Because of Trump, N.Y. Times (June 7, 2018).

[2]  These and other issues are discussed in the posts listed in the “U.S. & Guantanamo Bay, Cuba” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.