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U.S. tightens Cuban embargo, allowing legal claims for confiscated property

a car parked on a city street: Old American cars drive near the Habana Libre Hotel, former Havana Hilton, on Feb. 28, 2019. © Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images Old American cars drive near the Habana Libre Hotel, former Havana Hilton, on Feb. 28, 2019.The Trump administration partially reversed more than two decades of U.S. policy toward Cuba on Monday, authorizing lawsuits by American citizens against Cuban government entities “trafficking” in property that was confiscated six decades ago by the revolutionary government of Fidel Castro.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that the administration was lifting a prohibition against such suits, as long as they were filed against one of about 200 companies and businesses in which the Cuban security services have a financial interest. Last year, U.S. companies and travelers were prohibited from conducting any business with the listed Cuban entities.

The new step comes as the administration tightens the economic screws on Cuba in an attempt to walk back the Obama-era opening to the island. That effort has intensified with administration accusations that Cuba is the main prop holding up the Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro.

“Today expect the United States to take the first in a series of steps to hold the regime in #Cuba accountable for its 60 years of crimes & illegality which includes its support for the murderous #MaduroCrimeFamily,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) wrote on Twitter early Monday in anticipation of the announcement.

Others saw an additional motive. “This is all about Florida 2020,” where thousands of Venezuelans are now a voting bloc along with the always-important Cuban Americans, said Richard Feinberg, a professor of international economy at the University of California at San Diego and a Latin America specialist.

“It’s clear that by this action, we are ratcheting up pressure on the Cuban government,” said a senior State Department official who briefed reporters on Department-imposed condition of anonymity.

The measure allows legal claims only against property held by the listed Cuban entities and for now, at least, does not affect any foreign investment or the foreign part of joint ventures with those entities. In 30 days, the official said, the administration will assess the situation and decide, among other things, whether to expand it.

“In addition to taking this action,” the official said, “we are also continuing to encourage the international community to press Cuba on human rights . . . encouraging anyone doing business in Cuba to consider, whether intentionally or not, they’re trafficking in confiscated property and therefore abetting the regime’s repression.”

At stake are potentially hundreds of thousands of claims — nearly 6,000 of them already certified by the U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission — billions of dollars, and protracted legal and diplomatic battles with U.S. and foreign companies currently operating on property claimed by original owners.

An unprecedented aspect of the act, at odds with traditional practice and international law, would allow Cuban Americans who were not U.S. citizens at the time their property was taken to make claims in federal court.

Most of the existing and potential claimants fled the island in the years immediately after Castro took over the government in January 1959. The properties range from vacation beach houses to some of Cuba’s largest state-owned and joint venture companies. Cuba’s intelligence and military services are involved in many of the businesses, particularly in the tourism sector.

The measure is part of the 1996 Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, commonly called Helms-Burton after the lawmakers who initiated it. The law codified and expanded the economic embargo against Cuba’s communist government — expanding it to apply to foreign countries and mandating that it remain in place until lifting it was determined to be in the U.S. national interest and would expedite Cuba’s return to democracy.

The bill, initially opposed by many Democrats, was passed and signed by former president Bill Clinton after Cuban fighter jets, in February 1996, shot down two private planes operated by a Miami-based group humanitarian group. Cuba disputed that the planes were over international waters.

But the law’s Title III provision, allowing U.S. citizens to sue for three times the current value of confiscated property worth more than $50,000, has been suspended every six months since it was enacted, as successive administrations determined it would be harmful to U.S. trade and relationships with allies that have investments in Cuba.

Several European countries, along with Canada and Mexico, passed laws prohibiting cooperation with any of its extraterritorial provisions, and the European Union threatened to bring it before the World Trade Organization.

As it continues to push for Maduro’s ouster in favor of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, whom more than 50 countries have recognized as Venezuela’s interim president, the administration has repeatedly charged Cuba — along with Russia and China — with keeping Maduro in office.

“Part of the problem in Venezuela is the heavy Cuban presence, 20,000 to 25,000 Cuban security officials,” White House national security adviser John Bolton told CNN on Sunday.

Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s ambassador to Canada, spoke out Monday against a Canadian Broadcasting Company report repeating Bolton’s charges. Vidal said there were 20,000 Cubans in Venezuela, 94 percent of them health workers and the rest “in other sectors such as education,” according to Prensa Latina, the Cuban news service.

In years past, Cuba sent thousands of physicians and other health workers to Venezuela in exchange for sharply discounted — or free — oil shipments that have now been substantially curtailed as Venezuelan production has lagged.

But while there are disagreements over the numbers, most experts in this country say that thousands of Cuban intelligence and military personnel are also in Venezuela, where they hold significant sway over forces loyal to Maduro’s government.

Although the administration has increased economic pressure on Cuba, even those who disagree with U.S. policy have been leery of investment there.

“The main deterrent to foreign investment in Cuba is the Cuban government itself,” Feinberg said. “The domestic economy is stagnant if not declining . . . they have severe foreign exchange problems and delays in repatriation of money. Who’s going to invest under those circumstances? Not a lot of companies.”


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