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In historic first, Swiss firm settles suit by U.S. family over seized property in Cuba

It would be the first settlement of a legal claim under a 1996 U.S. act regarding compensation for business property confiscated in Cuba.
A change in U.S. policy in May 2019 allowed Americans to sue for compensation if they owned property seized by the government in Cuba and turned over to international companies. Pictured is the U.S. embassy in Havana.
A change in U.S. policy in May 2019 allowed Americans to sue for compensation if they owned property seized by the government in Cuba and turned over to international companies. Pictured is the U.S. embassy in Havana. [ EMILY MICHOT | Miami Herald ]
Published Jun. 2, 2021|Updated Jun. 2, 2021

A Swiss multinational cement company has agreed in principle to settle a lawsuit brought by a family seeking compensation for the use of their property in Cuba seized in 1960 after Fidel Castro came to power, according to court documents.

If the agreement is finalized, it will be the first settlement of a legal claim launched under Title III of the U.S. Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which established the right to sue for compensation for business property confiscated in Cuba.

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

LafargeHolcim, a cement and building material manufacturer based in Jona, Switzerland, in 2000 invested through a subsidiary in the Carlos Marx cement plant located on the confiscated property of Compañía Azucarera Soledad, SA, according to court documents. Soledad, located on 27,170 acres of land near the port city of Cienfuegos, was seized by the Cuban government on Aug. 6, 1960, and listed as nationalized. Court documents said the Swiss company operated the cement plant until at least 2018.

Thanks to a surprising decision by former President Donald Trump in May 2019 allowing people to sue under the Title III provision, owners of property seized by the Cuban government can demand compensation from foreign companies in Cuba “trafficking in stolen property.” The provision allows U.S. citizens to claim compensation in federal courts from any company — American or foreign — that has benefited from the use of confiscated property on the island.

Since then, claimants have been filing lawsuits against hotels, cruise and travel companies, airlines and banks, among others, accused of benefiting from business with properties that were taken by the Cuban government after the revolution.

The federal lawsuit, filed in September 2020, is one of several cases that have ended up in court since Trump activated the provision. In the complaint, William H. Claflin and 24 other people, some of whom belong to the Claflin family, claim that the property they owned was seized without compensation by the Cuban government in 1960. They also claim that LafargeHolcim “trafficked, knowingly and intentionally,” in the confiscated property.

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

It’s unclear what compensation LafargeHolcim agreed to pay the plaintiffs. In the complaint, the plaintiffs had claimed the current market value of the property was an estimated $270 million, plus legal fees, interest and other costs, according to court documents.

In the complaint, the family claims it lost its Compañía Soledad including all its assets, which were confiscated by the Cuban government on August 6, 1960, and listed as nationalized.

Soledad was a large and “prosperous” closely held family-owned corporation that was confiscated without compensating Soledad’s owners, U.S. nationals Helen A. Claflin; William H. Claflin III; Mary C. Rentschler; Anne C. Allen; and John W. Weeks, according to the complaint.

“Soledad’s expansive and successful operations near Cienfuegos, Cuba, included a sugar mill with all necessary facilities, large sugar cane fields, and extensive pasture land in the Province of Las Villas,” the document said. The 27,170-acre property included natural resources such as limestone, and was located near the deep-water port of Cienfuegos and a navigable river. Soledad also owned 31 miles of a railroad with steam locomotives, the court document said.

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U.S. District Judge Aileen M. Cannon ordered the parties to file a notice of settlement on or before June 28, according to court documents. If the parties fail to complete the expected settlement by June 28, the judge ordered LafargeHolcim to file a response to the complaint on or before July 12, the documents say.

“The Parties are working diligently to consummate their settlement agreement and expect that the agreement will be completed on or before June 28, 2021,” says a status report on the case.

David Baron, an attorney representing the plaintiffs at Berliner Corcoran & Rowe declined to comment. Grace Mead, an attorney at Stearns Weaver Miller representing LafargeHolcim, declined to comment. LafargeHolcim wasn’t immediately available to comment on its operations in Cuba.

- Adriana Brasileiro

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