MIAMI – The first US federal court rulings on lawsuits filed under Title III of the LIBERTAD Act, or Helms-Burton Act, have proven disappointing for the plaintiffs, who are seeking compensation for properties expropriated in Cuba following the 1959 revolution.
Federal District Judge Beth Bloom dismissed the first two lawsuits out of about 20 filed so far under Title III, which allows plaintiffs to sue both foreign and Cuban companies making money off properties confiscated after the revolution in the Caribbean nation.
The Helms-Burton Act was enacted in 1996, but implementation of Title III was suspended every six months by the administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
In May 2019, the Trump administration allowed Title III to take effect as part of tougher policy toward Cuba.
Under Title III, plaintiffs are allowed to sue over the confiscation of properties that belonged to them or their families.
The lawsuits dismissed in the first days of 2020 had been filed against Norwegian Cruise Line and Geneva, Switzerland-based MSC Cruises for using piers confiscated from Havana Docks Corporation.
Two other Miami-based cruise lines sued under Title III – Carnival Corporation and Royal Caribbean – expect the dismissal of similar lawsuits filed against them.
The plaintiffs, however, can appeal the rulings made at the District Court level.
Cuban-American attorney Nicolas Gutierrez, who has filed several lawsuits under Title III of the Helms-Burton Act, said Bloom’s rulings set a bad precedent.
In both the Norwegian Cruise Line and MSC Cruises cases, Judge Bloom ruled in favor of motions filed by the defendants’ attorneys that argued that Title III violated their clients’ due process rights under the US Constitution.
Bloom based her ruling principally on the fact that the 75-year contract between Havana Docks Corporation and Cuba’s previous government expired in 2004, well before the cruise lines began operating in the island nation.
“If Defendant’s alleged activities had taken place between 1960 and 2004, it would have ‘trafficked’ in Plaintiff’s confiscated property under the Act. However, because there is no dispute that Defendant’s allegedly unlawful conduct took place beginning in 2017, it did not traffic in Plaintiff’s confiscated property,” Bloom said in her ruling in the Norwegian Cruise Line case.
Gutierrez, for his part, told EFE that Bloom demonstrated a “rigid and narrow” approach to the case because focused entirely on the expiration of the contract and ignored that “in 1960, (Fidel) Castro’s revolutionary government forcefully confiscated these docks without compensation.”
Frank Calzon, former executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, told EFE that the adverse rulings in the two cases did not necessarily mean that the rest of the lawsuits would be dismissed.
The implementation of Title III in May 2019 is just “one piece” in the Trump administration’s policy toward Cuba, Calzon said, noting that the US government had also imposed sanctions and economic restrictions, among other measures, against the island.
In early January, another federal judge, Cecilia M. Altonaga, removed Spanish hotel company Melia, travel website Trivago and Cuban companies Gran Caribe, Cubanacan and Grupo Gaviota, all three of which are controlled by the Cuban military, from a Title III lawsuit.
In this case, it was the plaintiffs who requested the foreign companies’ removal so they could focus on online travel companies Expedia and Booking.
Andres Rivero, a commercial litigator with Miami’s Rivero Mestre LLP whose firm represents the plaintiffs, told EFE that the move was made as part of a “legal strategy” aimed at not “delaying” the case by having to contend with the complications that come with dealing with foreign entities.
Rivero, however, said his clients reserved the “right to refile” the lawsuit against Melia and the Cuban-owned companies in the “very near” future.
So far, 72 Cuban-Americans have filed lawsuits in US courts, seeking compensation for the use of confiscated properties in Cuba.
Most of the targeted assets are hotels, the majority of them in the hands of European companies, especially Spanish corporations, and airlines using Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport.
The plaintiffs have gone after companies that operate or have operated businesses on properties nationalized by the Cuban government.
The U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a private group, estimates that the 5,913 claims filed over confiscated properties and certified by the US government totaled $1.9 billion, a sum that has grown to $8.52 billion with interest over 60 years.