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

Burke Hedges and his mother Maritza Hedges Smith are part of a family with more than 20 properties valued at $50 million that were nationalized in Cuba. Now, they hope to sue the Cuban government for compensation. [Times (2016)]
Burke Hedges and his mother Maritza Hedges Smith are part of a family with more than 20 properties valued at $50 million that were nationalized in Cuba. Now, they hope to sue the Cuban government for compensation. [Times (2016)]
Published Mar. 5, 2019

Six decades after the Cuban government nationalized U.S.-owned properties on the island, the Trump administration has taken steps that enable some Americans who incurred losses to seek compensation.

It is a decision people could take advantage of in the Tampa Bay area, home to the nation's third largest Cuban American population and to a number of people who before the Cuban revolution had business interests on the island.

To proceed, those interested need to find who owns their lost property — and quickly.

Under the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which codified the 1960s-era Cuba embargo, a clause known as Title III allows Americans to file civil lawsuits in American courts against companies using their expropriated properties for profit.

But every president since then has suspended Title III. Until Monday. That's when the Trump administration announced that some lawsuits will be allowed to proceed as long as they're filed during a 30-day window from March 19 through April 17.

"If anybody was going to do this, we knew that Trump would," said Gary Rapoport, whose Mafioso grandfather Meyer Lansky lost his $8 million Habana Riviera hotel and casino to nationalization.

Tampa, St. Petersburg families seek payback for seized Cuban land

Still, in enacting Title III, the administration left off foreign companies for now. That means Spain's Iberostar, owner of the former Lansky hotel, cannot be sued. But the State Department will revisit the provisions once the 30 days are up.

Currently, civil suits can only be brought against state-run entities with whom Americans already are forbidden from doing business — those with ties to the Cuban military.

Around 200 of these entities are on the Trump administration's list. Some observers want to see more, but John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, suggested they take a deeper look.

"Looking at the decision quickly and simply, one would view that little was done, that the Trump administration was weak," Kavulich said. "That could be a dangerous assumption."

The list is made up mostly of hotels, but it also includes two government ministries and five state-run holding companies that together control a large chunk of the Cuban economy.

One holding company alone, CIMEX, owns more than 80 companies and they may have a number of offices, warehouses or storefronts throughout the island, said Robert Muse, a Washington attorney who deals with Cuba issues.

"This could create a logjam in the courts," Muse said.

What's more, Muse said, plaintiffs might argue that even if their nationalized property is not owned by an entity such as CIMEX, they can still sue provided the business on that land supports the holding company.

Much about this partial implementation of Title III remains unclear, said Jason Poblete, a Virginia-based attorney representing clients who had property nationalized.

"I am trying to find out how far the web extends," Poblete said.

Still, he said, Americans will find it difficult learning whether they qualify for a lawsuit before the window to file one is shut.

Cuba is not going to share a list of properties linked to the holding companies and Poblete does not suggest that anyone "flies to Cuba to investigate. They are an adverse party and foreigners do not have access to property registries."

St. Petersburg's Burke Hedges will ask contacts in Cuba to do the research for him. His family has more than 20 properties valued at $50 million, he said.

"If I learn anyone from that list is there," Hedges said, "we'll get moving."

Another Tampa benefactor could be the Cuesta family, whose nationalized Havana cigar factory is used by England's Imperial Cigars.

Jim Davis, the Cuestas' attorney, said he has not yet discussed the matter with them but plans to, and "will be following this."

Still, even if an American wins a lawsuit, it will likely be a symbolic victory only. Cuba is already defaulting on nearly $4 billion in civil judgments awarded to U.S. citizens whom courts have declared were victims of Cuban terror attacks.

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

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