By Franco Ordonez and Nora Gamez Torres (Mc Clatchy Washington Bureau)
HAVANA TIMES – The White House took a step closer to allowing thousands of Cuban-Americans to sue foreign companies and others who now control real estate on the island that was seized from them by the Cuban government.
The State Department warned other countries their companies could be subject to US lawsuits and have 45 days to review whether they were operating on confiscated properties.
“We encourage any person doing business in Cuba to reconsider whether they are trafficking in confiscated property and abetting this dictatorship,” a State Department statement said.
The Helms-Burton Act of 1996 allows Americans to sue foreign companies with businesses in the US that have also invested in confiscated properties in Cuba. Since it was passed, Congress has suspended the law for six months at a time every year. On Wednesday, the administration said it was only suspending it for 45 days.
The announcement of an abbreviated deadline comes amid intense debate within the administration over whether Cuban-Americans finally should be allowed to take their cases to court or if the controversial provision should be suspended for another six months.
Nearly 6,000 claims filed by people who were US citizens at the time their properties – worth an estimated 9 billion dollars – were confiscated by the Castro government have been certified by the US.
The US has long worried that such cases would alienate allies and flood the courts.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has pressed the White House to take more concrete steps against Cuba, saying it was time to respond to the owners of property confiscated in Cuba, many of whom live in Florida
National Security Council adviser John Bolton told El Nuevo Herald in November that the administration was “seriously considering” the proposal not to suspend the provision in Helms-Burton that allows Americans to sue.
In recent weeks, the administration has debated what steps to take. Those who pushed back at the State Department raised concerns of increased tensions between European and other allies who have criticized the extra-territorial application of the law.
“It is likely that there are only dozens of lawsuits, because the claimants must be able to prove their property, that they acquired it before 1996 through a licensed or exempt transfer; that there is a foreigner dealing with their property, which must also have an economic presence in the US,” said Nick Gutierrez, president of the National Association of Cuban Landowners in exile.
“Of course I’ll sue” if the law is not suspended, said Javier Bengochea, a Jacksonville, Florida, neurosurgeon, who says his cousins, the Parreno family, owned most of the main port terminal and warehouse facilities in Santiago, Cuba, through their company La Maritima Parreno. The company was confiscated without compensation by Castro in 1960. Bengochea is now a holder of a certified claim in relation to the Santiago port, a main site of activities by US cruise companies.