U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suspended — for another six months — a provision in the Helms-Burton Act that would allow more Americans, including nationalized Cubans, to sue those on the island who have been “trafficking” in private properties confiscated decades ago by the Cuban government.
According to a State Department notice, Tillerson, not President Donald Trump, notified Congress on Jan. 12 of his decision to temporarily suspend “the right to bring an action” under Title III of the so-called LIBERTAD Act starting Feb. 1. The State Department has had the authority to make a determination on Title III since January 2013, when former President Barack Obama delegated the matter to the Secretary of State.
The first time that the Trump administration had to weigh in on the issue, Tillerson, in turn, delegated authority to the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon who finally decided last July to suspend Title III for six months.
Since the enactment of the law (also known as the Helms-Burton Act) in 1996, all subsequent U.S. administrations have suspended the controversial provision, considered extraterritorial by close allies and commercial partners with investments in Cuba, such as the European Union and Canada.
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Under the Obama administration, the governments of the United States and Cuba sat down to discuss how to settle the pending claims on American property confiscated after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959 and now valued at $8 billion. But the negotiations resulted in no agreement.
The idea of maintaining Title III in force emerged again after the election of Donald Trump, who promised to take a tougher stance with Havana. The section would expand the group of people who could sue, in U.S. courts, companies and citizens of any country — including the United States — allegedly “trafficking in stolen property” on the island. So far, the government has certified nearly 6,000 claims filed by people who were U.S. citizens at the time their properties were confiscated by the Castro regime.
But the risk of alienating allies, setting legal precedents that contradict other principles of U.S. or international law and opening the door to a potential flood of claims has led each administration to opt for suspension.
Cuban-American politicians have asked Trump to do more to solve the thorny issue. A congressional hearing last week in Miami — attended by Florida Republican members of Congress Marco Rubio, Mario Díaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen — had a neurosurgeon as one of its witnesses. Javier García-Bengochea holds a certified claim and says he is the true owner of the port of Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second largest city.
“The Castro dictatorship still owes us, the port owners, many hundreds of millions... and benefited from our properties over this period without any compensation or consideration to us. Foreign entities have similarly trafficked in our stolen properties for decades,” said García-Bengochea, emphasizing that the U.S. government needs to “enforce existing law.”
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres