Amazon hit with lawsuit for selling charcoal made in confiscated land in Cuba

Daniel A. González traveled to Cuba to spread the ashes of his father in what had been his family’s farm in the east of the country until Fidel Castro came to power and seized it. There he learned that the government was making charcoal from Marabou wood that grew in those lands. Later on, bags of that charcoal were sold under a Hialeah brand on Amazon, all without González — who claims to be the rightful owner of the land — having received a penny.

All of this is part of a lawsuit filed Thursday in Miami federal court against the giant Amazon under the Helms-Burton Act, the first of its type that involves the use of expropriated land in Cuba.

González claims that since January 2017, Amazon and the Hialeah company Fogo Charcoal have promoted the sale of coal from Marabou that grew in the lands he inherited from his grandfather, Manuel González Rodríguez. According to the lawsuit, the 2,000 acres of land are located in the current province of Granma in the east of the country and were confiscated in June 1959 as part of agrarian reform.

The Cuban government offered no compensation for the expropriation of land and, according to the lawsuit, gave González’s family seven days to leave the property.

“An ironic angle to this story is that the initial seed capital for Amazon came from the generosity of a Cuban exile (Miguel Bezos, the stepfather of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos) who invested $245,573 in the company in 1995,” said the plaintiff’s lawyer, Santiago A. Cueto, of the law firm Cueto Law Group. “Now 25 years later, Amazon is profiting from property seized by the same communist regime from which Miguel Bezos fled.”

The lawsuit is the latest in almost a dozen against airlines, cruise companies, banks and hotels accused of “trafficking in stolen goods” in Cuba, according to the Helms-Burton Act. On Wednesday, American Airlines became the first airline sued by a Miami resident who claims to be the rightful owner of the international airport of Havana.

Since President Bill Clinton signed the Helms-Burton bill into law in 1996 and until May of this year, the right to sue under its Title III provision had been suspended every six months. But in May President Donald Trump let the suspension expire, which has opened the doors to several high profile legal cases.

Cueto said González’s grandfather had acquired the three farms that make up about 2,000 acres — identified as “La América, El Martillo and Limoncito” — between 1941 and 1952. Gonzalez knew firsthand that charcoal was being produced on those lands when he traveled to Cuba to scatter the ashes of his father.

“He was subsequently able to piece together the information from additional contacts and sources in Cuba,” the lawyer said, adding that some of these details and others about the location of the lands are not included in the initial complaint because they are not necessary at this point in the process.

In January 2017, Coabana Trading company reached an agreement with the state-owned Cuba Export to import 40 tons of marabou coal produced by cooperatives and that were to be sold in the United States under the brand Fogo.

Coabana Trading, which is not named in the lawsuit, was founded by Scott Gilbert, the lawyer for Alan Gross, the USAID contractor who was jailed in Cuba and released after an exchange of prisoners in December 2014.

The importation of coal, the first direct import of a Cuban product in decades, was allowed under new rules that relaxed the embargo during the administration of President Barack Obama.

Fogo Charcoal bought two more containers of Cuban charcoal in July 2018, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. Amazon sold each bag of charcoal “directly from farmers in Cuba” for $49.95, with free shipping.

Neither Amazon nor Fogo Charcoal responded to a request for comment.

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres

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