Trump Clears Way for U.S. Suits Against Foreign Firms Operating in Cuba

By Matt Spetalnick | April 17, 2019

The Trump administration will allow lawsuits in U.S. courts for the first time against foreign companies that use properties Communist-ruled Cuba confiscated after Fidel Castro’s revolution in the 1950s, a senior U.S. official said on Tuesday.

The move, which will be announced on Wednesday, could expose U.S., European and Canadian companies to legal action, dealing a blow to Cuba’s efforts to attract more foreign investment. It is also another sign of Washington’s efforts to punish Havana over its support for Venezuela’s socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

President Donald Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton on Wednesday will explain the administration’s decision in Miami and will also announce new sanctions on Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, countries he has branded as a “troika of tyranny,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Trump threatened in January to allow a controversial law that has been suspended since its creation in 1996, permitting U.S. citizens to sue foreign companies doing business in Cuba over property seized in decades past by the Cuban government.

Title III of the Helms-Burton Act had been fully waived by every president over the past 23 years due to opposition from the international community and fears it could create chaos in the U.S. court system with a flood of lawsuits.

The complete lifting of the ban could allow billions of dollars in legal claims to move forward in U.S. courts and likely antagonize Canada and Europe, whose companies have significant business holdings in Cuba.

It could also affect some U.S. companies that began investing in the island, an old Cold War foe, since former President Barack Obama began a process of normalizing relations between the two countries from the end of 2014.

U.S.-Cuban relations have nosedived since Trump became president, partially rolling back the detente initiated by Obama and reverting to Cold War rhetoric. A six-decade U.S. economic embargo on Cuba has also remained officially intact.

The Cuban government did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But the country’s National Assembly, meeting over the weekend, declared the Helms-Burton Act “illegitimate, unenforceable and without legal effect.”

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said in a speech on Saturday that the United States “has pushed the precarious relations with our country back to the worst level … trying to activate the hateful Helms-Burton Law, which aims to return us in principle to … when we were a slave nation of another empire.”

“BUMP” IN BUSINESS, OFFICIAL SAYS

Among the foreign companies heavily invested in Cuba are Canadian mining firm Sherritt International Corp. and Spain’s Melia Hotels International SA. U.S. companies, including airlines and cruise companies, have forged business deals in Cuba since the easing of restrictions under Obama.

Defending the administration’s decision, the senior U.S. official said allowing Cuba-related lawsuits would cause only a “bump” in the business world but would send a message of U.S. resolve against Havana.

In addition to halting any further waivers of Title 3, the administration will begin enforcement of Helms-Burton’s Title 4, which requires the denial of visas to and exclusion from the United States of those involved in “trafficking” confiscated properties in Cuba.

Trump’s decision on Helms-Burton followed threats by his top aides in recent weeks to take actions against Cuba to force it to abandon Maduro, something Havana has insisted it will not do.

Venezuela opposition leader Juan Guaido invoked the constitution in January to assume the interim presidency.

The United States and most Western countries have backed Guaido as head of state. Maduro has denounced Guaido as a U.S. puppet who is seeking to foment a coup and Maduro is backed by Cuba, Russia, China and the Venezuela military.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; additional reporting by Susan Heavy and David Alexander in Washington and Marc Frank in Havana; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Lisa Shumaker)

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