Miami-Dade County

Carnival Corp. is the first U.S. company sued for using ‘stolen’ property in Cuba

Carnival Cruise Lines was hit Thursday with unprecedented lawsuits filed by businessmen who for decades have sought justice after their families’ properties were seized by Fidel Castro nearly 60 years ago.

The Miami-based cruising conglomerate was sued in federal court by Mickael Behn and Javier Garcia-Bengochea, both of whom hold claims certified by the federal government for assets confiscated shortly after the Cuban Revolution. The lawsuits — made possible by a historic change in policy under the Trump administration — seek millions in compensation for the use of buildings and docks where Carnival’s cruise liners have anchored following Barack Obama’s efforts to normalize relations with the Castro regime.

“Thanks to the Cuban exile community and the LIBERTAD Act, we can finally get justice after 60 years,” Behn, whose grandfather owned buildings and three piers at the entrance to the Port of Havana before they were nationalized in late 1960, said while fighting tears outside the federal courthouse in Miami. “They just hoped my family would die and fade away.”

Behn and Garcia-Bengochea filed their claims on the first day possible after Donald Trump became the first U.S. president to fully enact a provision under the 1996 Helms-Burton Act — or LIBERTAD Act — allowing U.S. nationals and naturalized Cubans to seek damages for property seized by Cuba’s communist government.

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Mickael Behn reacts as he stands next to his attorney Roberto Martinez. Pedro Portal

Trump, like every president before him over the last 23 years, had previously declined to allow the pursuit of Helms-Burton claims in the name of furthering diplomatic relations with the Cuban government. But he pivoted last month amid a toughening stance on leftism in Latin America.

Now, Behn and Garcia-Bengochea are demanding millions that, according to the U.S., has been owed them for nearly 50 years. Both men hold claims certified by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Foreign Claims Settlement Commission in the early 1970s.

Garcia-Bengochea, a Jacksonville neurosurgeon, holds a claim issued to his cousin for a company, La Maritima Parreño, that owned port terminal and warehouse facilities in Santiago de Cuba until it was all seized by Castro. It was valued at $636,000 back in 1970. Behn inherited a Havana Docks claim valued at $9.2 million. But the value on both claims has been accruing at 6 percent interest annually for nearly half a century, and Behn recently valued his claim at $45 million.

Federal law, meanwhile, allows plaintiffs to seek triple the value.

“We’re pleased to have the opportunity to be the first to announce lawsuits under the Helms-Burton act against Carnival,” said Garcia-Bengochea. “They were the first cruise line to traffic in our stolen properties so they deserve the ignominious distinction of being the first to be sued under the act.”

The lawsuits are likely the first of many and serve as a warning to companies doing business in Cuba. Nearly 6,000 claims have been certified by the federal government, and Behn and Garcia-Bengochea have signaled that they’ll likely sue additional companies using their families’ seized properties moving forward.

The nearly 60 U.S. companies with presence in Cuba are doing so under authorizations issued by the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which handles a number of U.S. sanctions programs. But having an OFAC license may not be enough to protect the businesses from lawsuits.

Kimberly Breier, assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, told el Nuevo Herald last week that “there will not be any exemptions” when asked if the OFAC licenses for doing business in Cuba provide protection. Behn told el Nuevo Herald that, while the U.S. government has licensed companies to do business in Cuba, that doesn’t give them permission to use stolen property.

George Fowler, one of Carnival’s attorneys and vice-chairman of the Cuban-American National Foundation, told el Nuevo Herald that the lawsuits would go nowhere because the Helms-Burton law excludes liabilities for commercial activities related to authorized travel to Cuba. In addition, the cruise companies were issued licenses by the Treasury Department to carry U.S. travelers to the island.

“The law is clear, if the trip was allowed, the Helms-Burton does not apply,” said Fowler, who worked to get the law passed in 1996. “It was not the intention of the Helms-Burton law to go after American companies with legal business in Cuba. They can try it, but I’ve been here for 40 years, and I tell them: good luck.“

Behn and Garcia-Bengochea are being represented by Colson Hicks Eidson attorney Roberto Martinez, a former U.S. Attorney in Miami who fled Cuba the same year that his clients’ properties were nationalized. As an attorney, Martinez has represented clients against the Cuban government, and pursued a case following the shoot-down of four Brothers to the Rescue planes that led Bill Clinton to sign the Helms-Burton Act in 1996.

“I left Cuba in 1960. It’s emotional for me and it’s not my property,” Martinez said.

Attorney Roberto Martinez joined Mickael Behn, left, a holder of certified claims for land in Cuba and a plaintiff in the first lawsuit under the Helms-Burton Act, outside of the Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. U.S. Courthouse. Pedro Portal

Cuba’s government has dismissed the relevance of U.S. courts to its affairs. But the Helms-Burton Act explicitly links the payment of claims to the resolution of the ongoing embargo strangling Cuba’s communist government of business, although filing lawsuits to seek payment for those claims is a complicated process. And now U.S. citizens can bring action against companies doing business in Cuba.

“For the first time claimants are able to bring lawsuits against persons trafficking in property that was confiscated by the Cuban regime,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last month in announcing the policy. “Any person or company doing business in Cuba should heed this announcement.”

Thursday’s historic lawsuits come as Trump continues to step up pressure on the Cuban government through sanctions and through its efforts to topple Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, a country where Cuba is deeply invested politically and economically. A 1996 State Department report estimated there may be as many as 200,000 possible complaints, and an official recently told el Nuevo Herald that it’s possible the federal government could, for the third time, open up a window for people to file new claims.