WASHINGTON — The Trump administration said Monday it will allow unprecedented lawsuits in American courts against Cuban companies using property seized during the 1959 revolution, as it works to discourage more of the foreign investment in Cuba that provides the island's economy with a lifeline.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a 30-day "partial waiver" to a law known as the Libertad or Helms-Burton Act, allowing U.S. citizens to bring lawsuits in U.S. federal court against about 200 Cuban entities on a "restricted list" that have been subject to U.S. sanctions. The list includes entities under the control of Cuban military intelligence or security forces, but foreign companies invested in the island will be protected against such suits — at least for now.
"Doing business with Cuba is not worth trafficking in confiscated property," Pompeo said on Twitter. A senior State Department official told reporters that "it's very clear through this action that we are going to hold the Cuban regime accountable for its confiscation of properties and ensure that there is justice for U.S. claimants."
The administration stopped short of allowing lawsuits under the law against all people or companies that do business in Cuba using property seized in the revolution. Still, officials signaled that more significant steps could take place in the future, saying they would continue reviewing the situation during the 30-day period to see whether the current measures have sufficiently deterred people from "trafficking confiscated property."
The administration's plans to allow some suits was disclosed earlier Monday by NBC News and later announced by the State Department. It could play into the Trump administration's efforts to ostracize Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro, who is closely aligned with Cuba and whose country has been labeled by national security adviser John Bolton as part of a "Troika of Tyranny," alongside Cuba and Nicaragua.
Ever since 1996, when the Helms-Burton Act went into effect, every U.S. president has waived a key portion of it called Title III that allows U.S. citizens, including Cuban-Americans, to sue people or companies that do business in Cuba using property seized in the revolution. Waiving that section prevented it from going into effect and averted lawsuits targeting major hotel chains, airlines and even mining companies that operate in Cuba, often in joint partnerships with government entities.
According to research from the U.S. Cuba Trade & Economic Council, a nonprofit that promotes trade with Cuba, companies in 20 countries could face lawsuits from owners who have certified claims to confiscated property. The list includes numerous U.S. and European airlines and cruise lines, and major hotel chains such as Spain's NH Hotel Group and Melia Hotels International. There are also concerns that both the major port in Havana and the international airport are built at least partially on land owned before the revolution by Cubans who later emigrated to the U.S.
Exempting companies in the U.S. and allied countries will help prevent a backlash from companies like Marriott International, which has started expanding into Cuba since the two countries restored relations under President Barack Obama. It could also avert a new tension point with Europe, where countries are still bristling from the Trump administration's threats to sanction companies that maintain business in Iran.
Still, groups that promote closer ties with Cuba blasted the administration's move, arguing it hurts U.S. interests and helps America's enemies.
"This is a continuation of the same embargo policy that has failed for nearly 60 years," said James Williams of the group Engage Cuba. "You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig."
Creating a "partial waiver" that allows some lawsuits but not others also enters unchartered legal territory, said Angela Mariana Freyre, a former special adviser on Cuba in the White House National Security Council now at the law firm Squire Patton Boggs.
"Since Title III has been waived by every administration, both Republican and Democrat, since 1996, it has actually never been tested," said Freyre, who was born in Cuba. "We don't know what a court would do or how it would interpret a limited waiver or a partial waiver of the statute."
The Trump administration has long sought ways to toughen the U.S. economic embargo on Communist-run Cuba and has previously rolled back some of the measures enacted by the Obama administration to expand ties between the countries.
The first indication that the administration was considering Title III as the next step to pressure Cuba came in January when the waiver was last up for renewal. Rather than renewing it for the full six months, as had been done in the past, the administration waived it for only 45 days while announcing it would conduct a "careful review" of policy going forward. The administration cited U.S. national interests, human rights concerns in Cuba and efforts to "expedite a transition to democracy."
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., an advocate for harsher Cuba policies who has significant influence in the Trump administration, called the 45-day waiver "a strong indication of what comes next." He warned on Twitter at the time that "If you are trafficking in stolen property in #Cuba, now would be a good time to get out."
The 45-day waiver expires in mid-March. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is required to inform Congress of any intent to sign another waiver at least 15 days in advance.
Cuba's government responded to the announcement on Twitter, with Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez calling it an "unacceptable threat vs. the world" and saying Cuba "strongly rejects" the move against companies "arbitrarily sanctioned."
Past presidents have suspended the law out of concern over the effects it would have on the international court system, the World Trade Organization and U.S. relations with European countries, said John Kavulich of the U.S. Cuba Trade & Economic Council.
Ever since recognizing Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido in January as the country's legitimate leader, President Trump has been seeking further ways to pressure Maduro out of office, but is running out of options. The administration has hit Venezuela with oil sanctions and has slapped sanctions on top Venezuelan officials, but so far Maduro is refusing to leave power.
Ramping up economic and diplomatic pressure on Cuba serves as one way for the Trump administration to try to deplete support for Maduro. Cuba's government is one of the only remaining countries in Latin America still backing Maduro, and in recent days the Trump administration has increasingly taken aim at Cuba for allegedly propping him up.
"For years, Cuban security and intelligence thugs, invited into Venezuela by Maduro himself and those around him, have sustained this illegitimate rule," Pompeo told the U.N. Security Council in January. "Let's be crystal clear: The foreign power meddling in Venezuela today is Cuba."
Cuba has adamantly denied that claim, with Rodriguez, the foreign minister, challenging the United States to provide proof. He said the roughly 20,000 Cubans in Venezuela are all civilians.
"Our government categorically and energetically rejects this slander," Rodriguez told reporters in Havana. He said the crisis in Venezuela was a "failed imperialist coup" that had been concocted by the U.S.