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Cruises ordered to pay large sum for using confiscated property in Cuba

An American cruise ship at the port of Old Havana, Cuba, in November 2018.

An American cruise ship at the port of Old Havana, Cuba, in November 2018.

Miami Herald

A federal judge ordered four Florida-based cruise lines that traveled to Cuba to pay more than $400 million in damages to the U.S. company that held the concession for some of the Port of Havana docks that had been destroyed. illegally expropriated by Fidel Castro in 1960, the first decision of its kind under a law that punishes the “traffic of stolen property” in Cuba.

U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom’s highly anticipated ruling on Friday follows another back-to-back ruling in March in which she found the four companies – Carnival, MSC SA, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian – engaged in “trafficking acts.” and engaged in “prohibited tourism”. taking American travelers to Cuba and using Havana port facilities that Castro had confiscated.

The Cuban government has never compensated Havana Docks, the US company that holds the legal rights to the facilities and whose claim of ownership has been certified by the US Department of Justice’s Foreign Claims Commission.

The four cruise lines, which are registered outside the United States but retain their main establishment in Florida, would have to pay Havana Docks a total of $439 million, plus costs and attorneys’ fees, according to the ruling. Each company was ordered to pay the amount of the original land claim plus decades of simple interest.

But the number is even higher because the law that punishes the use of confiscated property in Cuba, the 1996 Helms-Burton Act or Libertad Act, allows the court to triple the amount of damages awarded.

“The defendants’ offenses in these cases have been established, and the Court has found that the defendants derive significant income – in the hundreds of millions of dollars each – from their unlawful business activities, and to the detriment of the plaintiff,” wrote the judge. “Lower compensation, as defendants suggest, would not effectively serve a deterrent purpose, as less compensation could in theory be considered a mere cost of doing business.”

The key provision of the Helms-Burton Act that allows prosecution of those who use illegally confiscated property in Cuba, called Title III, has been suspended by every president since Bill Clinton signed it until he took office. of Donald Trump. Breaking with tradition, Trump signed it into law in 2019, opening the door to a wave of lawsuits.

Yet skepticism persisted as to whether the plaintiffs, primarily Cuban and American heirs to corporations expropriated in the 1960s, would be able to navigate all the legal hurdles involved in these complicated cases and find sympathetic ears in court.

Although Friday’s decision is subject to appeal, it proves that at least some Helms-Burton lawsuits could be won and result in millions of dollars in judgments, offering hope to Americans, and especially to Cuban-American families who had hoped for many years to obtain reparations for Castro’s actions. At the same time, the multi-million dollar fine sends another chilling message to potential investors and those wishing to do business with the Cuban government on properties whose ownership is disputed.

“This is a very important decision by Judge Bloom,” said Bob Martinez, head of Havana Docks’ legal defense team and partner at Colson Hicks Eidson law firm in Coral Gables. “Commercial use of property confiscated from Cuba in violation of U.S. law has clearly detailed, well-known, and publicly disclosed legal consequences. After decades of pursuing its legal rights, Havana Docks is one step closer to justice. Havana Docks appreciates Judge Bloom’s thorough and careful review of the facts and law.

The case has also been closely watched as it sets a precedent for lawsuits involving travel providers like cruises and airlines. These companies attempted to argue in court that they were authorized by Barack Obama’s administration to do business with Cuba and that their transactions were covered by a “lawful travel” exception in the embargo regulations.

But the judge dismissed that defense after lawyers for Havana Docks presented evidence of tourist activities offered by cruise lines to their passengers, usually through tourist agencies hired by the Cuban government.

Despite the easing of some sanctions during Obama’s brief detente with Cuba, tourism to Cuba was banned then, and it remains so. Cuba cruises began in 2015 and ended in June 2019.

“The fact that the Treasury Department issued travel licenses and that executive branch officials, including the president, encouraged defendants to do so, does not automatically absolve defendants of liability if they engage in tourism prohibited by law,” the judge wrote in March.

Hundreds of court documents reviewed by the Herald showed that cruise lines offered trips to the beach, the Tropicana cabaret in Havana and cocktail-making classes to learn how to make mojitos, among other activities that do not match exactly to the description of “Encouraging ‘educational’ travel to ‘people-to-people’ contact, which was the legal category of travel invoked by cruise lines to take Americans to Cuba.

According to the records, the companies made at least $1.1 billion in revenue and paid $138 million to Cuban government entities.

A Carnival spokesperson told the Herald that the company does not believe its actions were wrong.

“Carnival Corporation is engaged in legal travel explicitly authorized, authorized and encouraged by the US government,” said Jody Venturoni. “We strongly disagree with the decision and judgment, and plan to appeal these decisions.”

The parties have been engaged for more than two years in a bitter dispute over whether or not, by docking at the port of Havana, the cruise lines have “trafficking” or not confiscated goods. Havana Docks holds a US government-certified claim for loss of assets and a concession dating back to 1934 to operate three docks at the Port of Havana which, decades later, were used as a cruise terminal serving US travellers.

Norwegian, MSC SA and Royal Caribbean did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment.

This story was originally published December 30, 2022 8:53 p.m.

Nora Gámez Torres is a Cuban/American and Latin American political reporter for the El Nuevo Herald and the Miami Herald. She studied journalism, media and communications in Havana and London. She holds a doctorate. in City Sociology, University of London. Her work has been recognized by the Florida Society of News Editors and the Society for Professional Journalists. //Nora Gámez Torres estudió periodismo y comunicación en La Habana y Londres. Hold a doctorate in sociology y desde el 2014 cubre temas cubanos para el Nuevo Herald y el Miami Herald. Report also has on the política de Estados Unidos hacia América Latina. Your work has been recognized with awards from the Florida Society of News Editors and the Society for Professional Journalists.

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