Trump Administration Lifts Limits On American Lawsuits Against Cuba

May 3, 2019
Originally published on May 3, 2019 6:34 pm
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For the first time in nearly 60 years, Americans whose property was seized after the Cuban revolution can sue for restitution. And these Americans aren't going after the Cuban government; they're going after foreign companies they say are profiting off their confiscated assets. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, the first suit, against Carnival Cruise Lines, was filed this week.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Buses pull up to the door of the recently refurbished cruise ship terminal on the edge of Havana Harbor. Dozens of sunburned, tired tourists step off.

ELLEN HAGGERTY: Back to the ship, jump in the pool, cool off.

KAHN: Ellen Haggerty says the cruise has been great and touring Havana wonderful.

HAGGERTY: Because the people are nice. They're sweet.

KAHN: Cuba's government has been restoring a lot of Havana with dollars from tourists like Haggerty, but if President Trump has his way, that foreign investment will dry up. He's allowed provisions under the Helms-Burton law to go forward; the first U.S. president to do so since it was passed back in 1996. Americans can now sue foreign companies using property they say was theirs and confiscated by the Cuban government back in the 1960s. Also, he's curbing tourist travel to Cuba. Tourist Haggerty says she doesn't care what Trump thinks.

HAGGERTY: Well, that's his problem. It's my money; I'll spend it where I want to spend it.

KAHN: But for Mickael Behn, Trump's sanctions are long overdue. Reached by phone in Miami, Behn says those docks where the cruise ships land belong to his family. His family ran the Havana Docks Company from 1917 until November 21, 1960; that's the day two armed men barged into the company's offices and confronted his grandfather.

MICKAEL BEHN: Now, at that point, they had told them that the Castro regime was taking his property, and that he had to leave the country.

KAHN: His grandfather grabbed his wife and children and flew straight to New York. According to a claim certified by the U.S. in 1970, the price tag on the Behn family losses topped $9 million; with interest over nearly 60 years, it's now valued at $45 million, says Behn, who is grateful to finally sue.

BEHN: Where the American government would finally back us, to recognize that we're the legitimate owners - was great, was amazing.

KAHN: He says he only wishes his grandfather could have seen this day; he died in 2016, the same year Carnival Cruises began docking in Cuba. Allowing the Helms-Burton law to fully go into effect has Cubans on edge. Billboards warning about the law are up around the capitol, and that message reinforced at this week's annual May Day workers march in Havana.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Spanish).

KAHN: Down with Helms-Burton, shouts the crowd, after prompting from an announcer. Sixty-eight-year-old paradegoer Flora Lorenza Sardina says the law is inhumane, just like Donald Trump.

FLORA LORENZA SARDINA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "He only thinks about money because he's rich, and he's capable of doing anything to get all the riches and gold in the world," she says. Whether anyone will get rich or will recover property from Cuba is a long shot, given the limitations of suing foreign companies in U.S. courts, says Pedro Freyre, a Florida lawyer with clients doing business in Cuba.

PEDRO FREYRE: U.S. litigation is very entertaining. It's a wonderful intellectual challenge. Lawyers make a lot of money. But at the end of the day, it's tremendously inefficient.

KAHN: And he says Trump is risking relations with foreign allies like Spain and Canada, which have substantial business interests on the island. In a statement, Carnival Cruise Line says they have a U.S. Treasury license to do business in Cuba, and their cruise schedule remains unchanged.

LUIS CONRADO PIER: No problem. Thank you. Thank you very much.

KAHN: For now, local tour guides are thankful for the business and the tips. Luis Conrado Pier says he'll fall back on his Spanish and Russian for other tourists if American cruisers stop coming.

Who's the better tipper?

PIER: American, of course.

KAHN: Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Havana.

CHANG: And in addition, we are now hearing ExxonMobil has filed a lawsuit against the Cuban government under the same law over a refinery and other assets.

(SOUNDBITE OF PYRMDPLAZA'S "DROWNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.