President Trump Considering Another Hostile Action Against Cuba 

On January 16, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo extended for 45 days the right to bring certain lawsuits in U.S. federal courts  by Americans who owned property in Cuba that was confiscated by its government. [1]

The Announcement

The State Department stated that this 45-day extension, instead of the usual six-month extension, “will permit us to conduct a careful review of the right to bring action under Title III [of the Helms-Burton or LIBERTAD Act] in light of the national interests of the United States and efforts to expedite a transition to democracy in Cuba and include factors such as the Cuban regime’s brutal oppression of human rights and fundamental freedoms and its indefensible support for increasingly authoritarian and corrupt regimes in Venezuela and Nicaragua.”

This announcement added, “We call upon the international community to strengthen efforts to hold the Cuban government accountable for 60 years of repression of its people. We encourage any person doing business in Cuba to reconsider whether they are trafficking in confiscated property and abetting this dictatorship.”

This right to sue was created by Title III of the Helms-Burton Act of 1996. It would permit lawsuits against persons who profit from property in Cuba that was expropriated from Americans. For example, there could be hundreds of lawsuits against corporations around the world, such as  Spanish companies that run Cuban hotels as well as Chinese and Turkish firms renovating Cuban ports. Exempt from this provision of  the Act  are U.S. companies involved in U.S. legal travel to Cuba such as AirBnB, airlines and cruise companies. But the exact meaning of this exemption could be tested in litigation, for example, over U.S. and foreign airlines landing at Havana’s Jose Marti Airport, which is built on land expropriated from a family now living in Miami.

Every  U.S. president since the enactment of the Helms-Burton Act, starting with Bill Clinton and including Trump in 2017 and 2018, has suspended Title III, for six months each time, because of its potential to alienate U.S. allies and complicate any future American detente with Cuba. Moreover, not suspending title III would create a huge obstacle to new foreign investment in Cuba.[2]

The most recent extension of only 45 days and the stated reason for this extension raise the real possibility that the Trump Administration will grant no additional suspensions or waivers of Title III and thereby permit such lawsuits.

Reactions to This Announcement[3]

This announcement predictably was applauded by Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL). He said in a tweet that it “is a strong indication of what comes next. If you are trafficking in stolen property in #Cuba, now would be a good time to get out.” A similar opinion was expressed by Representative Mario Diaz-Balart (Rep., FL).

Three U.S. experts on Cuba, however, criticized this possible change. Professor William LeoGrande of American University said, “It would cause an enormous legal mess, anger U.S. allies in Europe and Latin America, and probably result in a World Trade Organization case against the U.S.” He added that the State Department previously had estimated that allowing Title III to go into effect could result in 200,000 or more lawsuits being filed. Another expert, Phil Peters, said, “If they take this decision they will be moving from a policy of limiting U.S. engagement with Cuba to a policy of very actively trying to disrupt the Cuban economy.” The third, Michael Bustamante, assistant professor of history at Florida International University, stated, “Legitimate property claims need to be resolved, but in the context of a bilateral negotiation. Those backing the enforcement of Title III seem most intent on sowing havoc rather than achieving a positive good.”

Cuban authorities naturally had negative reactions to this proposed change. President Miguel Diaz-Canel said on Twitter that “we vigorously reject this new provocation, meddling, threatening and bullying, in violation of international law.”

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez described the announcement as “political blackmail and irresponsible hostility aimed at hardening the blockade on Cuba. The government of President Donald Trump threatens to take a new step that would reinforce, in a dangerous way, the blockade against Cuba, would flagrantly violate International Law and directly attack the sovereignty and interests of third countries. It . . . [is] a hostile act of extreme arrogance and irresponsibility [issued in] the disrespectful and slanderous language of the State Department’s public message.”

Conclusion

This U.S. announcement follows shortly after U.S. Senators Robert Menendez and Rubio called for another hostile U.S. action against Cuba—the re-establishment of the U.S. parole policy for Cuban medical professionals, which was criticized in a recent post.[4]

Both of these proposed U.S. actions may well have been promoted or provoked by National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has long-held hostile opinions about Cuba and more recently has called Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua “the Troika of Tyranny.” Moreover, on November 1 in Miami, Bolton said the Administration was “seriously” considering new measures against the Cuban government, including allowing Cuban exiles whose properties were confiscated by the Castro government to file lawsuits in U.S. courts against foreign companies currently using those properties.[5]

Both of these proposed hostile actions by the U.S., in this blogger’s opinion, are ill-advised as unnecessarily creating additional conflicts with a close neighbor, with whom the U.S. should be fostering better relations as was done by President Obama after December 17, 2014.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Secretary’s Determination of 45-Day Suspension Under Title III of LIBERTAD Act (Jan. 16, 2019); Reuters, U.S. Considering  Allowing Lawsuits Over Cuba-Confiscated Properties, N.Y. Times (Jan. 16, 2019); Assoc. Press, Trump Weighs Dramatic Tightening of US Embargo on Cuba, N.Y. Times (Jan. 17, 2019).

[2] U.S..State Dep’t, United States Determination of Six Months Suspension under Title III of LIBERTAD Act (July 14, 2017); Lederman, Trump administration again suspends a part of Cuba embargo, Fox News (July 14, 2017); Whitefield, Trump to suspend lawsuit provision of Helms-Burton Act in August, Miami Herald (July 17, 2017); U.S. Continues To Suspend Part of Its Embargo of Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (July 20, 2017); U.S. State Dep’t, United States Determination of Six Months Suspension under Title III of LIBERTAD Act (Jan. 24, 2018); State Department Creates Cuba Internet Task Force and Suspends Enforcement of Statutory Liability for Trafficking in Certain Cuban Expropriated Property, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 25, 2018); U.S. State Dep’t, Secretary’s Determination of Six Months Suspension under Title III of LIBERTAD Act (June 28, 2018); Whitefield, Trump administration extends ban on lawsuits over confiscated property in Cuba, Miami Herald (June 28, 2018).

[3] Fn. 1; Guzzo, U.S. might allow lawsuits over U.S. properties nationalized in Cuba, Tampa Bay Times (Jan. 17, 2019); Cuba Foreign Minister Rodriguez, Cuba strongly rejects the threat of activation of Article III of the Helms Burton Act, Granma (Jan. 17, 2019).

[4] Senators Menendez and Rubio Call for Restoring U.S. Parole Program for Cuban Doctors, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 11, 2019).

[5] U.S. National Security Advisor Announces New U.S. Hostility Towards Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 3, 2018).