Just like every president before him for more than two decades, President Donald Trump intends to suspend a Helms-Burton Act section that allows former owners of commercial property expropriated by Cuba to sue foreign companies and the Cuban government for using or “trafficking” in those confiscated holdings.
Since the Helms-Burton Act was signed into law in 1996 in the heated environment after Cuba shot down two Brothers to the Rescue planes, every president has routinely suspended the lawsuit provision known as Title III at six-month intervals. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon notified appropriate Congressional committees last Friday that the Trump administration would suspend Title III for a six-month period beyond Aug. 1. The law requires Congressional notification at least 15 days before a suspension is to begin.
On Jan. 5, during the last month of the Obama administration, former Secretary of State John Kerry signed the most recent suspension that was effective on Feb. 1.
The decision to suspend Title III of Helms-Burton, also known as the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, was the first action on Cuba since Trump announced his new direction on U.S.-Cuba relations during a June 16 speech in Miami.
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As part of a partial rollback of the Obama administration rapprochement with Cuba, Trump is eliminating people-to-people trips to Cuba by individuals and barring most business by U.S. companies working with entities owned or controlled by the Cuban military or intelligence services. The regulations underlying Trump’s new policy are still being written.
During last week’s meeting of Cuba’s National Assembly, Cuban leader Raúl Castro criticized Trump’s policy as nothing new but rather a return to confrontational policies that have been a “complete failure” for 55 years. But he repeated previous statements that Cuba is willing to continue negotiating with the United States on bilateral matters “on the basis of equality and respect for the sovereignty and independence of our country.”
In suspending Title III, U.S. presidents have traditionally feared alienating important U.S. trading partners such as Canada, Mexico, and EU countries that have invested in Cuba because it would allow the filing of a potential tidal wave of lawsuits in U.S. federal courts against those using tourism properties, mining operations, or seaports where there are prior claims.
In a process that was closed decades ago, the United States certified 5,913 claims for Cuban properties that belonged to U.S. citizens at the time they were taken after the 1959 revolution. Those claims plus interest are valued at about $8 billion in today’s dollars.
But the lawsuit provision of Helms-Burton isn’t limited to just those certified claimants. It would allow those who were Cuban citizens at the time when their property was taken to sue. The Cuban family that owned portions of the Port of Santiago, for example, could sue U.S. cruise lines that dock there.
Suits potentially filed by hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans could “inundate the federal court system in Florida for generations,” said Robert Muse, a Washington lawyer who specializes in U.S.-Cuba law.
Letting such lawsuits go forward also could jeopardize hopes of reaching a settlement with Cuba on the certified claims. “It would make it infinitely more difficult to settle those claims someday,” said Muse.
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi