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Spanish Meliá company may be sued in U.S. over its use of confiscated hotel in Cuba

The Spanish hotel chain Meliá could be the first foreign company to be sued in the United States under Title III of the Helms-Burton Act if it fails to settle with the original owners of a hotel currently managed by the company in Cienfuegos on the southern coast of Cuba.

Members of the Mata family filed a lawsuit Monday in federal court in Miami against several Cuban government companies. While Meliá is not yet named as a defendant in the lawsuit, the company was notified of the claimants’ intention to sue. Mata heirs are asking for compensation for the use of the San Carlos Hotel, now Meliá San Carlos, managed by the Spanish company in a joint venture with the Cuban hotel chain Gran Caribe.

The hotel was confiscated in December 1962 by the Cuban government from the Mata family, one of the wealthiest in Cienfuegos. The family also had two farms and several houses expropriated.

“We have always suffered pain and anguish for what they did to my family,” said Antonio Joaquín Alonso Mata, who arrived in the United States in 1995 when he was 9 years old. “My great-grandfather built the hotel and my mother was living in it when one day the government arrived and took it away. Maybe this is the beginning to see some justice.”

President Donald Trump allowed the implementation of Title III of the Helms-Burton Act as of May 2, which for the first time since the law was passed in 1996, enables filing lawsuits in federal courts for up to three times the value of the goods expropriated by the Cuban government.

Under the Helms-Burton Act, Meliá has 30 days to respond to the claimants. Lawyers for the Mata family said they were filing a class-action lawsuit, the first presented under Helms-Burton. This is also the first lawsuit filed for the confiscation of property of Cuban nationals who later naturalized in the United States, as allowed by Title III of the law.

“We are suing on behalf of the Mata family and the class of people who are in a similar situation,” said attorney Andrés Rivero from the Rivero Mestre law firm in Miami. He said other Cubans who are now U.S. citizens and whose properties are being exploited by Meliá and Cuban companies could also join the lawsuit.

Rivero said his office would request the evaluation of an expert but that the current market value of the San Carlos Hotel, a historic building in downtown Cienfuegos renovated by Meliá in 2018, would be in the order of “several million dollars.”

In addition to Gran Caribe, the lawsuit names other Cuban companies, including CIMEX, which took part in the restoration of the San Carlos Hotel, and two other hotel companies — Cubanacán and Gaviota — that manage hotels along with Meliá throughout the country. The Spanish company runs at least 34 hotels in Cuba, according to information on its website. Meliá also owns two hotels in the United States, one in Orlando and the other in Manhattan.

The heirs of Rafael Lucas Sánchez Hill are also preparing a lawsuit against Meliá and Blau — another Spanish chain — for operating hotels on beaches in Holguín, on the northeast coast, Spanish newspaper ABC reported.

In less than a month, three other lawsuits have already been filed under the Helms-Burton Act. The first was presented by the heirs of the ports of Santiago de Cuba and Havana against the U.S. cruise company Carnival. Exxon Mobil also sued Cuban companies CIMEX and CUPET for the use of a refinery in Havana.

The Cuban government has said that it will protect foreign companies from legal actions, although it is not clear how.

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres