Cuba travel restrictions coming, but flights and cruises from Tampa continue for now

The Trump administration announced the changes this week, also opening the door to lawsuits against companies doing business there.
Cuban and American flags hang in the atrium of the Carnival Paradise in June 2017 as the ship prepares for its inaugural cruise from Tampa to Havana. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times (2017)]
Cuban and American flags hang in the atrium of the Carnival Paradise in June 2017 as the ship prepares for its inaugural cruise from Tampa to Havana. [MONICA HERNDON | Times (2017)]
Published April 18

The White House on Wednesday announced a series of Cuba policies that roll back much of the Obama administration's work toward detente with the longtime Cold War foe.

The Tampa Bay area will feel the effect of the changes, but it’s not clear yet just how.

One question is travel restrictions — who they will apply to and how.

U.S. citizens can visit the island under the Obama policy through so-called "people to people" licenses that introduce them to Cuban artists and business people and enable them to learn about the nation's history.

This helped spur Southwest Airlines to launch daily flights from Tampa to Havana in 2016 and cruise lines Carnival and Royal Caribbean to include Havana on excursions from Tampa.

But in Miami on Wednesday, National Security Adviser John Bolton announced travel by people who don’t have relatives in Cuba will be restricted. The flights and cruises will remain unchanged for now until questions are answered — like what exactly are the restrictions, when do they kick in, and can the companies profit with family-only travel from Tampa?

Can Tampa’s Cuban-American population sustain its Havana flights?

Southwest "operates those flights in accordance within governing laws and all applicable regulations," airline spokesman Brad Hawkins told the Tampa Bay Times via email. "We have no changes to share today regarding our published service to Cuba."

Said Royal Caribbean spokesman Owen Torres, "We’re still reviewing today’s statements to evaluate their impact on our guests and our company. For now, we are sailing our Cuba itineraries as scheduled and will keep our guests updated if anything changes."

Bolton also announced a cap of $1,000 per person per quarter on money that can be sent from the United States to Cuba. Under another Obama policy, the limits had been lifted.

Also Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the administration is fully enacting Title III of the Helms Burton Act of 1996 that codified the Cuban Embargo against trade and travel.

The clause allows Americans to file civil law suits in U.S. federal court against interests that profit from their property seized from them in the wake of the Cuban revolution.

Lawsuits can be filed beginning May 2.

The White House announcement comes a month after the administration partially enacted Title III by allowing lawsuits against state-run companies in Cuba that have ties to the nation's military.

Go ahead and sue Cuba, Trump administration tells owners of some nationalized property

Title III has a caveat allowing presidents to suspend it every six months. Fearing lawsuits would anger international trading partners, each president before Trump did so.

The State Department estimates that more than 200,000 lawsuits might now be filed.

Local attorneys are now seeking potential litigants, said lawyer Ralph Fernandez, a longtime leader in the Cuban dissident community.

Fernandez has not taken any on, but said 10 attorneys reached out to him Wednesday for advice.

A victory in a lawsuit against Cuba or one of its state-run companies would be symbolic only since it is unlikely the country would pay. But a judgment against an international company doing business in Cuba stands a chance of being collected.

One resident who is considering seeking compensation through Title III is Gary Rapoport of Tampa.

He said he and his attorney are discussing options for recovering losses from the Habana Riviera hotel that his Mafioso grandfather Meyer Lansky lost to nationalization.

The hotel is now owned and managed by the Spanish company Iberostar.

Tampa's Ann Von Thron could also sue, but she won't.

Her ancestors in the Cuesta family owned a cigar factory in Havana that was nationalized. The building still bears the Cuesta name as it turns out cigars for state-run H. Upmann Cigars that are distributed by Imperial Tobacco of London.

In an email, Von Thron said, “My family has no interest in spending the money it will take to sue."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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