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U.S. might allow lawsuits over U.S. properties nationalized in Cuba

The biggest impact in the Tampa Bay area may be on travel. Airlines and cruise operators profit from ports that were seized by the Cuban government from people in Florida.
Published Jan. 17

The Trump administration appears poised to enact a long-frozen clause within the Cuban Embargo that would allow Americans who had property nationalized in Cuba to sue those now profiting from it.

The action also could force the suspension of travel between Tampa and Cuba.

When the clause, called Title III, was made part of the embargo in 1996, it came with the caveat that presidents could suspend it every six months. Presidents since then, both Democrats and Republicans, have done just that.

But on Wednesday, the Trump administration announced it would suspend Title III starting Feb. 1, but only for 45 days — suggesting that legal claims could be filed when that period is up.

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

Those whose families lost property in Cuba in the 1960s when the socialist government began nationalizing property are celebrating the prospect of recouping their losses.

Those who favor continuing the Obama-era policy of normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba condemn the maneuver.

"I have urged the administration to continue the waiver of Title III," said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat. "History has shown that our continued posture of isolation and exclusion will not result in a freer, more democratic Cuba."

Allowing Title III lawsuits to go forward could scare potential investors from entering the Cuba market and chase away current investors. That would hurt the Cuban people, Castor argued.

She prefers that the United States and Cuba resolve the issue of nationalized property diplomatically.

But past presidents have already tried this and failed, said Rafael Pizano, a Tampa spokesman for Miami-based Cuban Democratic Directorate, which opposes Americans profiting on nationalized property in Cuba.

Young leader rises in Tampa's Cuban dissident movement, but who will follow him?

"Rapprochement has been attempted and Cuba's sole ruling party did not meet with equal efforts," Pizano said. "Now tools such as Title III may enable victims to move forward with their claims under the rule of law."

The biggest impact in the Tampa Bay area, home to the third-largest Cuban population in the United States, may be on travel.

Havana's Jose Marti International Airport is built on land taken from the family of José Ramón López, who lives in Miami. And the Havana Harbor where cruise ships dock was owned by the family of Mickael Behn, who splits his time between Miami and England.

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

After the 45-day window, both men could file lawsuits against Cuba, which owns the land, as well as the airlines and cruise operators. Travel could be halted while the suits are resolved.

"This is great news," Behn said. "The government is finally taking notice of the crimes being committed."

Still, a clause within Title III protects legal travel. Whether that means commercial airlines and cruises is unknown.

Among people in the Tampa Bay area who might tale advantage of the window are Burke Hedges, whose family lost more than 20 properties valued at $50 million, and 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

"It has been long overdue," said Hedges, whose family also had a cotton plant in Matanzas that still is in operation and whose grandfather's one-time home in Havana is now the Russian Embassy. "At the end of the day, we just want accountability for what was taken from us. That is not unreasonable."

Said Rapoport, "We would love the opportunity to regain what belongs to my grandfather, who built one of the most beautiful hotels in Caribbean."

Opponents of Title III say one reason past presidents suspended it is the logjam the measure could create in U.S. courts.

It could also create hostility with U.S. allies doing business in Cuba.

One example: London-based Imperial Tobacco holds exclusive rights to distribute Cuban cigars outside the island. One of the company's brands is H. Upmann Cigars, rolled in a Havana factory seized from the Cuesta family of Tampa.

"It is conceivable that the Trump Administration is going to open what will be a Pandora's Box of litigation," said Antonio Martinez, a New York-based attorney who handles cases involving sanctions against Cuba.

The administration does not have to fully implement Title III. Instead, it could allow only certain lawsuits to proceed, perhaps just those among the nearly 6,000 claims filed by U.S. citizens and already certified by the U.S. government. In all, those are worth around $9 billion.

These include claims by the Cuesta and Behn families, but not the Hedges and Rapoport families — nor the thousands of Cuban Americans prohibited from filing claims because they were not U.S. citizens at the time of their losses.

Robert Muse, a Washington, D.C., attorney who deals with Cuba issues, warns that "before anyone starts counting their compensation money, remember that this is going to be bitter litigation." Companies now doing business with Cuba will aggressively defend any claims, Muse said.

"You are suing a real corporation that will have real lawyers who will go to court to fight you."

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

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