MIAMI (AP) — In 1958, José Ramón López’s father owned Cuba’s main airport, its national airline and three small hotels. And the families of Mickael Behn and Javier García Bengochea had docks in Havana and Santiago de Cuba.
All properties were taken in Cuba’s socialist revolution.
The dispossessed families later moved to the United States and abandoned hope of compensation as Cuba and the U.S. severed relations and fought during decades of the Cold War.
But on Thursday, Behn and Garcia Bengochea filed what were believed to be the first lawsuits against European and American companies doing business on confiscated properties in Cuba — thanks to the Trump administration’s decision to activate a provision of the U.S. embargo on the island.
Known as Title III of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, the section allows Americans, and Cubans who later became Americans, to sue almost any company deemed to be “trafficking” in property confiscated by Cuba’s government. Every president since the law’s passage has suspended Title III because of objections from U.S. allies doing business in Cuba and because of the potential effect on future negotiated settlements between the U.S. and Cuba.
The law contains exceptions for residential properties, properties worth less than $50,000 and properties linked to travel to Cuba deemed legal under U.S. law.
Its activation, however, could generate dozens or even hundreds of lawsuits, along with trade fights between the U.S. on one side and countries including Spain, France and Britain on the other.
Behn and Garcia Bengochea, who filed cases in federal court in Miami, are the heirs of families that owned docks or ports that are now being used by cruise ships that began traveling to Cuba in 2016 under President Barack Obama’s detente with the island.
Behn’s grandfather, American William C. Behn, was president of the company Havana Docks, which owned three docks in the capital that were confiscated in 1960. Mickael Behn, a television executive who lives between Miami and London, says he is suing Carnival Cruise Corp. for up to three times the current value of the docks, as permitted under the law.
Bengochea, a neurosurgeon who lives in northeast Florida, owns 80 percent of the shares of the confiscated Cuban company La Marítima, which operated the port of Santiago de Cuba. He is suing for up to $20 million.
“We want to get justice,” said Bob Martinez, the lawyer for both men. “This was a robbery and what we’re trying to get is compensation for the illegal use of these properties.”
But for George Fowler, an attorney who has advised Carnival on Cuban matters, the law provides an exception for companies that go to Cuba legally, like the cruise lines. For that reason, he said, the Helms-Burton law does not apply to them.
During the Obama administration, the cruise companies were issued licenses by the Treasury Department to carry American passengers to Cuba.
Mickael Behn wipes away tears Thursday after he and Javier Garcia-Bengochea filed lawsuits against Carnival Cruise Line, which has been using their former properties in Cuba. They are the heirs of families that owned docks or ports now being used by cruise ships.
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
For its part, Cuba fears that its already lagging levels of foreign investment could be permanently crippled. At a Cuban government-organized May Day parade Wednesday in Havana, marchers carried signs and chanted slogans denouncing the Helms-Burton law.
The law “was an effort to tie the hands of any president to improve relations with Cuba,” Carlos Fernández de Cossío, Cuba’s director-general of U.S. affairs, told the Associated Press in Washington.
“No doubt that there will be a threatening effect that will inhibit some investors from going to Cuba. We cannot ignore that that will occur,” he said. “It will perhaps have an impact on the living standards, the living conditions, of common Cubans. ... It will damage perhaps the relationship of the United States and Cuba more than it is today.”
Others, however, celebrated the first lawsuits.
Orlando Gutiérrez Boronat, from the exile group Cuban Democratic Directorate, said that the lawsuits have a clear message.
“Everyone who wants to invest in Cuba will have to go to federal court,” he said .
The Justice Department has certified some 6,000 claims worth about $8 billion at current values. There are an additional 200,000 uncertified claims, many by Cuban Americans.
One of the uncertified claims belongs to López, whose family had owned the airport, airline Cubana de Aviación and three hotels in Havana and the southern city of Cienfuegos since 1952.
“At the end of the day they’re going to recognize that it’s ours,” said López, a 65-year-old retiree who divides his time between Madrid and Miami. “The moment has finally come.”