Latin America

White House inches toward allowing Cuban Americans to sue for island properties left behind

A street scene in Havana’s district of Regla.
A street scene in Havana’s district of Regla.

The White House took a step closer to allowing thousands of Cuban Americans to sue foreign companies and others who now control real estate on the island that was seized from them by the Cuban government.

The State Department warned other countries their companies could be subject to U.S. lawsuits and have 45 days to review whether they were operating on confiscated properties.

“We encourage any person doing business in Cuba to reconsider whether they are trafficking in confiscated property and abetting this dictatorship,” a State Department statement said.

Title III of the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 allows Americans to sue foreign companies with businesses in the U.S. that have also invested in confiscated properties in Cuba. Since Helms-Burton was passed, Congress has suspended Title III for six months at a time twice each year. On Wednesday, the administration said it was only suspending it for 45 days.

The announcement of an abbreviated deadline comes amid intense debate within the administration over whether Cuban Americans should be finally allowed to take their cases to court or if the controversial provision should be suspended for another six months.

The Cuban government rejected what it saw as a threat that would “dangerously reinforce the blockade against Cuba, flagrantly violate International Law, and directly attack the sovereignty and interests of third countries.”

“Cuba rejects this threat in the most energetic, firm and categorical way,” a Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement said. “It regards it as a hostile act of extreme arrogance and irresponsibility, while condemning the disrespectful and slanderous language of the State Department’s public message.”

Nearly 6,000 claims filed by people who were U.S. citizens at the time their properties — worth an estimated $9 billion — were confiscated by the Castro government have been certified by the U.S. But the U.S. has long worried that such cases would alienate allies and flood the courts. Lawyers say an unknown number of Cuban Americans, whose properties were confiscated before they became naturalized as U.S. citizens, could also sue.

“It is likely that there are only dozens of lawsuits, because the claimants must be able to prove their property, that they acquired it before 1996 through a licensed or exempt transfer; that there is a foreigner dealing with their property, which must also have an economic presence in the U.S., “said Nick Gutiérrez, president of the National Association of Cuban Landowners in exile.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, has pressed the White House to take more concrete steps against Cuba and said that it was time to respond to the owners of property confiscated in Cuba, many of whom live in Florida.

Rubio called Wednesday’s decision “a step in the right direction” that was long overdue.

“Those individuals deserve justice,” he said.

National Security Council advisor John Bolton told El Nuevo Herald in November that the administration was “seriously considering” the proposal not to suspend the provision in Helms-Burton that allows Americans to sue.

In recent weeks, the administration has debated what steps to take. Those who pushed back at the State Department raised concerns of increased tensions between European and other allies who have criticized the extra-territorial application of the law.

“Of course I’ll sue,” if the law is not suspended, said Javier Bengochea, a Jacksonville neurosurgeon, who says his cousins, the Parreño family, owned most of the main port terminal and warehouse facilities in Santiago, Cuba, through their company La Maritima Parreño. The company was confiscated without compensation by Castro in 1960. Bengochea is now a holder of a certified claim in relation to the Santiago port, a main site of activities by U.S. cruise companies.

But the Cuban government argued that foreign individuals who operate legitimate business in Cuba would face “unfounded and illegitimate claims” in U.S. courts.

“The politically motivated and venal behavior of certain courts in Florida, frequently used as a weapon against Cuba, is well known,” the Cuban government said in its statement. “For our people, it means once again resolutely, consciously and forcefully confronting the insistence of U.S. imperialism to subjugate the destiny of the Cuban nation to its dominion and tutelage.”

Franco Ordoñez is a White House correspondent for the McClatchy Washington Bureau with a focus on immigration and foreign affairs. He previously covered Latin American affairs for the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. He moved to Washington in 2011 after six years at the Charlotte Observer covering immigration and working on investigative projects for The Charlotte Observer.