The first lawsuits against a company accused of trafficking in confiscated Cuban property were filed Thursday, both targeting Carnival Cruise Lines.
The unprecedented action was made possible following a move by the Trump administration to fully implement Title III of the Helms-Burton Act, also known as the Libertad Act, which allows US nationals to sue for damages over private property seized during the Cuban revolution.
Javier Garcia-Bengochea and Havana Docks Corp. each filed suit in a federal court in Miami on the first day that Title III fully entered into force. Rodney Margol, who is co-counsel on the cases along with Bob Martinez, said the litigation was filed at 12:01 a.m.
The lawsuits allege that the Miami-based cruise company has been using ports that belonged to their family or family’s company without compensation.
“The cruise lines have been using Havana Docks port infrastructure for several years without consequence to them,” an emotional Mickael Behn, the president of Havana Docks, told members of the media after filing the suit. “They knew very well the ownership. It wasn’t a secret to them or anyone else.”
“Thanks to the Cuban exile community and the Libertad Act, we can finally get justice after 60 years,” Behn said.
While a number of companies have cruise ships that travel to the island nation, Garcia-Bengochea claimed that Carnival was “the first cruise line to traffic in our stolen properties.”
“So they deserve the ignominious distinction of being the first to be sued under the act,” he said during a news conference outside the courthouse. Garcia-Bengochea said he had been working nearly 10 years to be able to take this action.
“He has worked tirelessly in achieving this mission,” Margol told CNN.
Carnival’s chief communications officer Roger Frizzell told CNN in a statement that they would continue with their normal cruise schedule to Cuba.
The Cruise Lines International Association said in a statement that “cruising to Cuba falls under the lawful travel exemption under Title 3 of the Helms Burton Act.”
“Our cruise members have been and are now engaged in lawful travel to Cuba as expressly authorized by US federal government,” they said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced in mid-April that the administration would allow the controversial provision to go into effect – the first administration to do so since the law’s creation in 1996.
“Any person or company doing business in Cuba should heed this announcement,” Pompeo said in remarks at the State Department. “Implementing Title III in full means a chance at justice for Cuban Americans who have long sought relief from Fidel Castro and his lackeys seizing property without compensation.”
The top State Department official for Western Hemisphere affairs, Assistant Secretary Kimberly Breier, said the US had certified nearly 6,000 claims of confiscated property, which she estimated to be worth $8 billion with interest. There could be up to 200,000 uncertified claims, she noted.
“I anticipate that there will be a significant number of claimants who pursue their rights under Helms-Burton,” Margol said Thursday.
The move was met with opposition from Canadian and European Union allies, whose businesses have billions of dollars of investments in Cuba.
Federica Mogherini, a top EU official for foreign affairs, reiterated in a statement Thursday that the EU “deeply regrets” the decision to fully implement the act.
“The EU considers the extra-territorial application of unilateral restrictive measures to be contrary to international law and will draw on all appropriate measures to address the effects of the Helms-Burton Act, including in relation to its WTO rights and through the use of the EU Blocking Statute,” she said. “The EU will continue to work with its international partners who have also voiced their concerns in this regard.”