1. Business

The federal government says this man rightfully owns Havana's cruise port

William Behn (seated) confronted by two Cuban soldiers at his office at his docks in Havana on Nov. 21, 1960 when the property was nationalized. [Mickael Behn]
Published Jun. 25, 2018

The United States government knows him as certified foreign claim number CU-2492. But he wants to make a more personal introduction to Tampa Bay.

He is Mickael Behn, a 43-year-old U.S. citizen residing in England, where he works in television production.

And, according to the U.S. Department of Justice's Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, Behn is the rightful owner of Havana Harbor, the cruise ship terminal for Cuba's capital city.

The harbor was taken from Behn's family when the socialist government nationalized property without compensation.

So, Behn said, those who book a cruise from Port Tampa Bay to Havana support illegal activity. "This is an American crime on an American corporation," he said. "Don't go to Havana."

The nonprofit Cuban Democratic Directorate recently put up billboards near Port Miami and is running radio ads that say those booking cruises to Cuba support the trafficking of stolen property.

Within the next few months, Behn hopes, the same strategy will be employed in Tampa.

"These are stolen goods," said Rafael Pizano, the directorate's Tampa representative. "It doesn't matter how much time has passed. It's still the same regime and same people in power who took his family's property."

Behn's great-grandfather Sosthenes Behn, founder of International Telephone & Telegraph, purchased the Havana land and built docks there in 1920. The property was passed on to Behn's grandfather William Behn in the 1940s but nationalized on Nov. 21, 1960.

"The docks were confiscated by the Castro regime literally at gunpoint," said Orlando Gutierrez, co-founder of the Cuban Democratic Directorate.

A photo shows Behn's grandfather seated at a table in his office with soldiers holding guns in one hand and bottles of Coca-Cola in the other. Behn says the photo was taken Nov. 21, 1960, but does not know by whom or why soldiers allowed it to be taken.

Another photo has Fidel Castro on a tank outside the docks, but Behn does not know if it is from Nov. 21, 1960.

When nationalized, the Havana port was worth $9.2 million. Today, estimates Behn, the value is at least $102 million.

The port will grow more lucrative in 2024, when another four cruise terminals are added to the existing two to accommodate a growing demand.

Cuba says it welcomed 328,000 cruise passengers from around the world to Havana in 2017 and expects that number to climb to 500,000 by the end of 2018.

Two cruise lines sail from Tampa to Havana, Carnival's 859-foot, 2,100-passenger Paradise and Royal Caribbean's 880-foot, 2,700-passenger Majesty of the Seas.

For fiscal year 2018, Port Tampa Bay expects 49 cruises — 40 offered by Royal Caribbean and nine by Carnival — sailing from Tampa will include a port call at Havana. These pay $40,000 in fees per port in Tampa.

The nongovernmental U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council says these same ships pay the Cuban government up to $79,000 each time they dock at the Havana port. Passengers add $140-$200 to the Cuban economy each day they are in Havana, a mix of what is spent with private and state-run businesses.

Nearly 6,000 U.S. citizens with property or other belongings nationalized by Cuba had their losses certified by the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission.

Among them is Jacksonville's Javier Garcia-Bengochea's family, who owned where the Port of Santiago is located. Worth $547,365 when nationalized, Garcia-Bengochea now values it at $180 million.

Tampa does not host Santiago cruises, but Miami does.

"Cruise lines have zero ethic," Garcia-Bengochea said.

Behn agrees.

When Cuba cruises started a few years back, Behn expected passengers to be ferried from the ship to the island. He did not think that then-President Barack Obama or the cruise lines would port at nationalized property.

He says letters to the cruise lines educating them on the history of the Havana Harbor have been repeatedly ignored.

"I thought worst case they would reimburse us," said Behn, who inherited the claim from his grandfather two years ago.

Neither Carnival nor Royal Caribbean responded to a request for comment.

Behn is disappointed that the current U.S. administration has also been lax on this issue despite President Donald Trump saying he would be tough on Cuba.

"The State Department is colluding with the cruise lines … by ignoring our claims and not aiding us in any manner," Behn said.

Public outreach remains the only tool at the disposal of U.S. citizens whose nationalized land serves as Cuba cruise docks.

"I firmly believe most Americans would not be involved and spending their money on a cruise to Cuba if they knew they were contributing to something illegal or morally and ethically questionable," Port Santiago heir Garcia-Bengochea said, "like trafficking in our stolen property."


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