Trump to put 'game changer' pressure on Cuba, says Mario Diaz-Balart


Joel Gehrke, Washington Examiner


President Trump is getting ready to place an unprecedented amount of economic pressure on Cuba’s communism regime and some of the non-U.S. companies that have invested there, according to a leading Republican lawmaker.


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has signaled that Americans who decades ago had property stolen by Fidel Castro’s regime and sold to other foreign companies may soon be able to sue those companies to recoup their losses. That will intensify financial pressure on the island government, according to Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, and have ripple effects for authoritarian states around the world.


“This is a very, very big deal,” the Florida Republican and Cuban-American told the Washington Examiner. “I think really good things are coming from this. And so, you can't minimize the impact.”


Pompeo hasn’t given the green light for those lawsuits to proceed, at least yet. The lawsuits have been authorized by the so-called Helms-Burton law since 1996, but they haven’t been filed because every president in the last 23 years has suspended the ability of Americans to use that language. That suspension typically lasts six months at a time, but Pompeo jolted Cuba watchers and investors last week by issuing a new suspension that will last a mere 45 days.


“We call upon the international community to strengthen efforts to hold the Cuban government accountable for 60 years of repression of its people,” Pompeo’s team added in a note accompanying the suspension. "We encourage any person doing business in Cuba to reconsider whether they are trafficking in confiscated property and abetting this dictatorship.”


That brief announcement raises the prospect of widespread lawsuits against companies that invest in Cuba, if Pompeo declines to issue another suspension when the 45 days are done in March. Diaz-Balart said allowing the law to take effect would help Americans win compensation from property that was taken from them during Castro's revolution.


“Here’s the question: Should people be able to steal private property owned by Americans and profit from it with impunity?” Diaz-Balart asked about the possibility of lawsuits.


If the suits are allowed to move forward, there would still be some details to hash out. For example, would Cubans who fled the island be able to sue? Diaz-Balart hopes that the law will cover naturalized U.S. citizens, but he said even the narrower option would send the right message.


“The one that nobody can dispute is the property of Americans who were Americans then at the time,” he said. “Even if it's only those certified claims, it's a game changer.”


The U.S. government has certified about 6,000 claims to property that Cuba confiscated nearly 60 years ago, and many believe those claims would have to be settled as part of any final agreement to reopen trade and other relations between the U.S. and Cuba. The lawsuits would be a more aggressive way of seeking compensation, and the Cuban government seems to be expecting the Trump administration to pursue it.


"It intends to grant the right of claim to those who were not citizens of the United States, when their properties were nationalized or left the country, abandoning them,” the Cuban Foreign Ministry protested last week, according to an unofficial translation.


The result would be that “any Cuban and every community in the country” would be affected as American sue foreign companies that have invested in “the housing they occupy, the work center where they work, the school their children attend, the polyclinic where they receive medical attention, land on which their neighborhoods are built,” as the Cuban government put it.


Their alarm is justified, according to Diaz-Balart, because the companies from Europe and Canada who could face lawsuits will feel pressure to exit the country.


"I think it's probably true that those companies that have been investing in the island knowing that they're investing, they're trafficking in stolen property, have done so with the false expectation that they're doing that with absolute impunity,” he said. “Would they have invested in these stolen properties if they knew that they could be held liable? I think the answer is pretty clear.”


It's not clear the U.S. could collect any judgments from the foreign companies. Foreign countries have complained for years about the extraterritorial nature of the provision, and lawsuits against their companies would likely make worse the trade tensions that already exist between the U.S. and Europe.


But it could make foreign companies think twice about investing more in Cuba, and it could end up taxing the resources of neighboring Venezuela, which helps finance the Cuban regime in exchange for security forces to help dictator Nicolas Maduro cling to power in the face of a widespread economic and political crisis.


"A lot of the atrocities committed by the Maduro regime are committed by Cubans sent there by the Castro regime,” Diaz-Balart told the Washington Examiner. “The Castro regime is very fragile, at best. The Venezuelan money is drying up, and I think you're going to have a lot of companies that — if they knew that they could get sued for trafficking in stolen properties, I think they're going to look elsewhere to invest. And so, I think that's a really important factor."



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