Cuban Regime Bristles After US Signals Prospect of Lawsuits Over Seized Assets

By Patrick Goodenough | January 17, 2019 | 4:27 AM EST

President Barack Obama meets with Cuban President Raul Castro at U.N. headquarters in New York on September 29, 2015, nine months after Obama announced that he was changing five decade-old U.S. policies towards Cuba. (Photo by Anthony Behar-Pool/Getty Images)

( – In a move described as “ominous” by supporters of U.S. businesses in Cuba, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signaled Wednesday that the administration is considering paving the way for foreign entities to be sued for “trafficking” in private property confiscated by the Castro regime decades ago.

The veiled warning came in a notification to Congress that Pompeo is waiving legislative authorization for such lawsuits for just 45 days, rather than the six-month period which every administration has invoked for the past 23 years – including the Trump administration on three previous occasions.

Under the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, individuals subject to U.S. jurisdiction are authorized to file lawsuits in U.S. District Courts against companies or individuals making use of formerly private property in Cuba that the communist regime took without compensation after the revolution, through seizure, nationalization or expropriation.

Pompeo informed the House and Senate foreign and appropriations committees that the 45-day extension, which begins on Feb. 1 – a day after the current six-month waiver expires – will allow the administration “to conduct a careful review of the right to bring action” under the relevant provision of the Helms-Burton Act.

That right to bring lawsuits would be reviewed, he said, “in light of the national interests of the United States and efforts to expedite a transition to democracy in Cuba.”

It would also “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.”

Pompeo called on the international community to strengthen efforts to hold the Cuban regime accountable for “60 years of repression.”

“We encourage any person doing business in Cuba to reconsider whether they are trafficking in confiscated property and abetting this dictatorship,” he concluded.

Saying Pompeo’s move gives “a strong indication of what comes next,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a leading critic of the regime, advised, “If you are trafficking in stolen property in Cuba, now would be a good time to get out.”

On Twitter, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez “categorically” rejected the announcement, calling it “political blackmail” and a “brutal attack” on international law.

He noted that presidents since 1996 had suspended the provision “due to flagrant extraterritoriality” and the harm it would cause to U.S. corporate interests.

Rubio responded mockingly to Rodriguez’ tweet with one of his own: “You have made millions of $ off of stolen property over the last 60 years. But check back in 45 days. #TickTock.”

$1.9 billion, plus interest

President Trump announced in June 2017 he was rolling back some of its predecessor’s policies designed to normalize relations with Havana, telling a cheering audience in Miami, Florida that he was “canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba.”

A DoJ Foreign Claims Settlement Commission determined in the 1970s that 5,911 claims for confiscated assets in Cuba, worth a combined principal value of 1.851 billion, were worthy of compensation. Subsequent investigations amended that to 5,913 certified claimants, with claims valued at a total of $1.902 billion.

The commission allowed for simple interest on the value of the assets to accrue at six percent a year from 1960, bringing the approximate value today to $9 billion, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

A little over 5,000 of the certified claimants are individuals who formerly owned the confiscated property, and the rest are corporate entities. The biggest claimants include sugar, utility, mining, energy and hospitality companies.

President Barack Obama meets with Cuban President Raul Castro at U.N. headquarters in New York on September 29, 2015, nine months after Obama announced that he was changing five decade-old U.S. policies towards Cuba. (Photo by Anthony Behar-Pool/Getty Images)

Europeans have been major investors in Cuba, and after the Helms-Burton Act (formally called the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity or LIBERTAD Act) became law, the European Union lodged a complaint with the World Trade Organization, alleging that the U.S. was unlawfully exercising its jurisdiction extraterritorially.

The consecutive six-month waivers over the years have been seen largely as a response to concerns about potential harm to relations with European and other countries, should lawsuits go ahead.

The U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a business organization whose members include public and private corporations and entrepreneurs, said Pompeo’s 45-day suspension “presents a likelihood of an ominous commercial, economic and political landscape” for Cuba and members of the E.U., U.N. and WTO.

“Once again, the Trump administration has used weaponized potentiality to create uncertainty and, thus anxiety,” it said in a statement.

The Helms-Burton Act was named for its original sponsors, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who retired in 2003 and died in 2008, and Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), who retired in 2013.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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