U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress on Thursday that he intends to suspend a section of the Helms-Burton Act that allows former owners of commercial property expropriated by Cuba to sue companies and the Cuban government for using or "trafficking" in those confiscated holdings.
Beginning Aug. 1, Pompeo said, he would suspend for another six months the right to bring legal action under Title III of the Helms-Burton Act, also known as the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act. The law requires notification of congressional committees at least 15 days before a suspension is to begin.
The secretary of state has had the authority to make a determination on Title III since January 2013, when former President Barack Obama delegated the matter to the State Department.
The Helms-Burton Act was signed into law in 1996 after Cuba shot down two Miami-based Brothers to the Rescue planes, killing the four pilots and spotters aboard the aircraft.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
For more than two decades, every U.S. president or secretary of state has suspended Title III for six-month increments, but some Cuban exiles, perceiving a White House more willing to take a hard line on Cuba, had hoped the Trump administration might allow Title III to stand.
"Nine sections of the LIBERTAD Act have been poorly implemented, and parts of it mostly ignored by both Republican and Democratic administrations," said lawyer Jason Poblete at a congressional hearing last week. "It is not, as its critics claim, an outdated law that does not work. Laws work when enforced."
Title III has been routinely suspended because the United States has tried to avoid alienating important trading partners such as Mexico, Canada and European countries that have invested in Cuba.
Potentially, Title III could allow an avalanche of lawsuits in U.S. courts brought by American companies and individuals against entities that profit from their use of tourism properties, seaports and other operations where there are prior claims.
Under Helms-Burton, not only U.S. citizens whose properties were taken after the 1959 Cuban Revolution but also those who were Cuban citizens at the time their property was seized would be allowed to sue.
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi