Cuba

Miami man who says he’s rightful owner of Havana’s airport sues American Airlines

In an anticipated legal case, American Airlines on Wednesday became the first air carrier to be sued for conducting business on properties confiscated by the government in Cuba, despite having obtained authorization from the Barack Obama government to fly to the island.

The federal lawsuit, which also includes Chile’s LATAM Airlines, was filed in Miami on Wednesday by José Ramón López Regueiro. He is the son of José López Vilaboy, a businessman close to Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista who was the owner in 1959 of what is now Havana’s José Martí International Airport before it was confiscated by the revolutionary government led by Fidel Castro.

According to the lawsuit, filed by the Rivero Mestre law firm, López Vilaboy bought the land of the Rancho Boyeros airport from its previous owner, Pan American Airways, in 1952 for $1.5 million in cash. The Cuban businessman then modernized the runway and built the airport terminal that he renamed José Martí.

“For his efforts, Vilaboy, like so many other Cubans, was left with nothing when Fidel Castro took power and established a communist government, which stole his property and forced him and his family to flee Cuba,” the lawsuit claims.

López Regueiro sued the two airlines for the use of the Havana airport facilities without his authorization, which constitutes “unlawful trafficking in his confiscated property in Cuba,” the lawsuit says, in violation of Title III of the Helms-Burton law.

In a statement to the Miami Herald, American Airlines said several U.S. government agencies have authorized its trips to Cuba.

“Title III specifically exempts lawful travel, which is what American provides. We’ll review this lawsuit in detail and vigorously defend our service to Cuba,” the statement said.

“It’s a matter of justice,” López Regueiro told the Miami Herald. “They took everything from my father and didn’t compensate anyone.”

The same day that Batista fled the island at dawn on Jan. 1, 1959, López Vilaboy requested asylum at the Guatemalan embassy. López Regueiro, then six years old, remained in Cuba until the late 1980s, when he emigrated to Spain.

“I didn’t see him again. He died in March 1989 in Miami,” his son said.

A Florida court declared López Regueiro his father’s legitimate and only heir. In addition to the airport, López Vilaboy was a shareholder of the airline company Cubana de Aviación, and owned a newspaper and a hotel, among other properties. All were confiscated by the Castro government, which accused him of having exploited his relationship with Batista to obtain loans from the government and sometimes act as the “frontman” of the Cuban leader.

López Vilaboy denied the accusations in a memoir.

“For the Cuban government, either you are with the government, or you are bad. For the [Castro] government nobody owned property legitimately,” López Regueiro said.

The case is the latest in more than a dozen lawsuits so far against Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Expedia, Booking.com, Meliá, Credit Suisse and other companies that are accused of having taken advantage of confiscated properties without having compensated their original owners.

The Helms-Burton law establishes exceptions for “transactions and uses of property incident to lawful travel to Cuba.” Two Florida judges ruled recently that this determination must be made at a later date and allowed lawsuits related to the use of Cuban ports to continue their course.

Unlike cruise ships, American Airlines transports commercial cargo to Cuba, said lawyer Andrés Rivero, who represents López Regueiro and other plaintiffs in similar cases.

Rivero said he initially chose an American and a Latin American airline to test the main legal issues in the case. If it succeeds, other companies could be added to the lawsuit, or the firm could file separate lawsuits, he said.

About 50 airlines, including five American carriers, fly to José Martí International Airport.

Although the properties were confiscated in Cuba more than 60 years ago, the legal battles began in May, when President Donald Trump broke with tradition and decided to enforce the right to seek compensation in federal courts provided for in Title III. Since President Bill Clinton signed the law in 1996, all presidents had suspended that right every six months to avoid conflicts with foreign governments with commercial interests in Cuba.

Title III allows Cubans who later became U.S. citizens to file lawsuits, which expands the number of potential cases, since most of the properties confiscated by Castro had Cuban owners.

In a sign of concern, the Cuban official press had dedicated several articles to a possible claim for the use of the Havana airport, arguing that López Vilaboy’s properties were legally confiscated because he was involved in illegal acts while Batista was in power.

Rivero said he is not worried that this argument will reach the courts.

“Bring it,” he said. “We have not sued the Cuban government in this case, but we will do it in others.”

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres

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