The Trump administration will postpone its decision on whether to fully implement the Helms-Burton Act for two weeks. The move actually increases pressure on companies — primarily from Spain, Canada and the United States — because they could potentially be sued for “trafficking” in properties confiscated by the Cuban government as much as 60 years ago.
The decision, announced Wednesday, comes amid intense criticism of the government of Cuba for its role in supporting Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.
In a notice sent to Congress, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. “continues to examine human rights conditions in Cuba, including ongoing repression of the rights of the Cuban people to free speech, free expression and free assembly.” He added that the State Department “is also monitoring Cuba’s continued military, security, and intelligence support” to Maduro, “who is responsible for repression, violence, and a man-made humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.”
The subject of fully implementing Helms-Burton began to make its rounds on social media earlier this week.
“The regime in #Cuba is the single biggest reason why the Maduro regime is still able to repress, jail, torture and kill the people of Venezuela,” Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio posted on Twitter on Monday. Then he added the hashtag “#HelmsBurton,” without giving more details.
National Security Adviser John Bolton, who also tweeted on Monday, posted: “The U.S. will hold Cuba accountable for its subversion of democracy in Venezuela and direct hand in Maduro’s ongoing repression of the Venezuelan people.”
President Donald Trump broke with the practice from previous administrations of suspending the Title III provision of the Helms-Burton Act every six months, which allows Americans to file lawsuits in U.S. courts to seek compensation for property that was confiscated by the Cuban government after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959. The Helms-Burton Act codified the Cuban embargo into law.
Since Jan. 16, when it issued a 45-day waiver, the administration has been shortening the suspension period of the provision, signaling that is willing to tighten the embargo.
In early March, the administration partially implemented the provision to allow lawsuits against some 200 Cuban companies with ties to the military that now control properties confiscated by the Cuban government. But it postponed for a month a decision on whether to allow foreign companies on the island to be sued, too, amidst negotiations to seek international support to oust Maduro.
Spain, Canada and France would be among the countries most affected by a full implementation of Title III, as they have investments in tourism and mining on the island. The routine six-month suspension of this provision was the response to the complaints of U.S. allies, which protested the extraterritorial effects of the law.
Spain is the third largest commercial partner of Cuba. Spanish hospitality chains such as Meliá and Iberostar constructed or currently manage about 50 hotels on the island, some of which are on a U.S. list of restricted entities because they are owned by companies tied to the Cuban military.
In talks with allied governments, the United States is asking for more actions with respect to Venezuela. During a meeting in Washington on Monday with the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell, Pompeo thanked “Spain’s efforts to support a return to democracy in Venezuela.”
At the same time, Borrell warned Pompeo that a tightening of the embargo would be an unwelcome source of tension between the two countries.
“We have talked about important issues, we have talked about the possibility of applying Title III of the [Helms] Burton law to Cuba and the U.S. already knows that, in this, we would be radically at odds, Europeans and Spain in particular,” said Borrell in remarks to the press on Monday.
A full implementation of the law would also affect U.S. companies that obtained licenses under the Barack Obama administration to do business with Cuba, including airlines, cruise companies and the Marriott and Starwood hotel chains.
No lawsuits have yet been filed against Cuban companies for “trafficking with confiscated properties,” since a decision by a U.S. federal judge would be rather symbolic. The Cuban government has already said that it does not recognize the Helms-Burton law nor any lawsuit based on it.
“The Helms-Burton Act is not applicable in Cuba or against Cubans or foreigners,” Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez published on Twitter on Tuesday. “U.S. high officials and a few legislators who profit from the anti-Cuban hatred policy are threatening to introduce new measures that will damage both peoples. Once again they will fail to achieve their imperialist goals.”
On the other hand, the possibility of suing foreign companies could be more attractive to claimants, since many of those companies have operations and assets in the United States that could be seized to compensate the plaintiffs.
A Department of Justice commission has certified 5,913 claims held by Americans for the loss of land, factories, merchandise and bank accounts, among other assets, for a current value of more than $8.5 billion. The commission only certified the cases of U.S. citizens at the time of confiscation. Unlike that process, Title III allows Cubans who later acquired U.S. citizenship to file lawsuits in U.S. courts.
Of the certified claims, only a little over 900 refer to original losses in excess of $50,000, a requirement that the Helms-Burton Act establishes to file claims. But with the Cuban Americans in the equation, the number of potential claims could be much higher.
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres