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Every time Javier Garcia-Bengochea hears about another cruise line calling at the Port of Santiago in southeastern Cuba, his frustration grows.
And there are plenty of cruise passengers visiting the island these days. Royal Caribbean International, Oceania Cruises, Viking Ocean Cruises, Azamara Club Cruises, Holland America Line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, and Pearl Seas Cruises all call in Santiago or plan to stop there next season.
As far as he is concerned, those cruise lines are profiting from stolen property — his own.
Garcia-Bengochea, a Jacksonville neurosurgeon, says his cousins, the Parreño family, owned 82.5 percent of the main port terminal and warehouse facilities in Santiago through their company La Maritima Parreño, but that it was illegally confiscated without compensation by the late Fidel Castro on Oct. 13, 1960.
Garcia-Bengochea’s cousin, Wall Street attorney Alberto Parreño, who owned 25 percent of the family enterprise and became a U.S. citizen in 1943, filed a claim for his seized personal property with the U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission in the early 1960s. Eventually, Garcia-Bengochea said his cousin’s interest in the Santiago property and that of the rest of his family were bequeathed to him in the 1980s.
In his long-running battle to have property rights in Cuba recognized, Garcia-Bengochea has testified before Congress and his attorney has sent warning letters to the cruise lines advising them that the port property was taken without compensation and he has a claim to it.
“Allowing trafficking in stolen American properties, particularly by other Americans, is not in our national interests,” said Garcia-Bengochea. “It signals that the U.S. government is not serious about defending American property from theft abroad. This makes American investment around the world less secure.”
Now a billboard campaign aims to take his case and that of another family with claims to the port in Havana to the public. Two billboards have been put up at busy Miami intersections by the Assembly of the Cuban Resistance, a coalition of human rights and other Cuban exile groups.
“Don’t aid theft: Cuban docks are stolen property,” the billboards state.
The Assembly says the billboards, which are at Northwest 21st Street, east of LeJeune Road, and at the corner of Northwest Miami Court and 13th Street, are aimed at “raising awareness about how tourism supports and empowers oppressors in Cuba.”
It’s part of a more aggressive effort by conservative exile groups to not only warn U.S. visitors to Cuba away from certain properties but also to encourage the Trump administration, which has taken a harder line on Cuba, to more vigorously enforce the Helms-Burton Act.
“I think they see an opportunity across the board to pressure the Trump administration to be more aggressive,” said William LeoGrande, an American University professor who specializes in Cuba relations. “With the relationship deteriorating, through a combination of Trump regulations and the downsizing of the embassy [in Havana], I think they see an opportunity and want to press their advantage.”
Helms-Burton, which is also known as the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, sets forth potential sanctions for those doing business with Cuba as well as outlines a number of conditions that must be met by Cuba, including a commitment to organize free and fair elections for a new Cuban government within 18 months, before the U.S. embargo against the island can be lifted.
It was signed into law in 1996 by former President Bill Clinton as tensions escalated with Cuba after two Cuban MiGs shot down two Miami-based Brothers to the Rescue planes, killing all four people aboard.
Those who favor tightening the screws on Cuba see Helms-Burton as their weapon of choice.
“There is an emerging theme among the anti-engagement crowd of rallying around the core of Helms-Burton,” said Washington attorney Robert Muse, who handles cases involving U.S.-Cuba relations. “It’s almost like going back to old-time religion.”
But sections of the Helms-Burton Act, including Title III that allows former owners of commercial property expropriated by Cuba to sue companies and the Cuban government for using or profiting from those confiscated holdings, have never been enforced. For the past 22 years, for example, every U.S. administration has waived the right to bring legal action under Title III.
Some exiles who favor a harder line on Cuba had hoped that President Donald Trump would switch course. But on June 28, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo notified Congress that on Aug. 1, the Trump administration would waive the lawsuit provision of Title III for another six-month period.
“Twenty-two years of waivers have moved Cuba farther, not closer to democracy,” said Garcia-Bengochea. Since the Obama era opening toward Cuba, he said, it’s no longer just foreign companies trafficking in stolen U.S. property in Cuba, but American companies, too.
When former President Barack Obama issued his last waiver before leaving office, it was archived before it was made public. Thinking perhaps the Obama administration had overlooked the waiver during its last days in office, Garcia-Bengochea filed a lawsuit against a Chinese company, China Communications Construction Co., that is helping modernize and add a pier, warehouses and cranes to the Port of Santiago.
But since Obama had, in fact, waived the lawsuit provision, “the case is just sitting there,” said Garcia-Bengochea.
The cruise lines that call in Cuba have been licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department to negotiate business deals with the Cuban government, and as long as U.S. presidents keep waiving the lawsuit provision of Title III, they are not subject to litigation.
“This is not the cruise industry’s cause. They’re not there to be involved in political issues, and I think they will remain politically neutral on this,” said Stewart Chiron, a cruise industry consultant. “They went through available legal channels. It took a long time and it was a meticulous process.”
But Garcia-Bengochea says they will still be liable for damages at some point: “They will be held accountable. The question is when.”
But those who argue in favor of the waivers say they prevent U.S. courts from becoming clogged with thousands of Cuban property-related lawsuits. Allowing such lawsuits, they say, could hurt relations with U.S. allies, is an overreach of American law, and could potentially be a huge obstacle in normalizing relations with Cuba some day.
Even though a Trump administration regulation prohibits Americans from doing business with 180 entities controlled by the Cuban military, it exempts the island’s airports, seaports and the Mariel Special Economic Development Zone, allowing U.S. airlines to land and U.S.-based cruise ships to continue to call on Cuban ports.
Exile supporters of tougher action on Cuba, however, say there are other sections of Helms-Burton beyond Title III that could and should be enforced.
Under Title IV of Helms-Burton, for example, a foreign executive of a cruise line with Cuban itineraries or officers, directors or controlling shareholders — and their family members — of Cuban ventures that involve confiscated property could potentially be excluded from the United States or refused entry visas. Sometimes that means foreign executives with Cuban ventures choose not to do business in the United States.
There’s no waiver provision for Title IV, but over the past two decades, it has been invoked in only a handful of cases.
“Title IV needs to be used more robustly,” said attorney Jason Poblete. “Everything with Helms-Burton is a question of political will. There has to be the political will to follow through on this.”
He said there are at least nine sections of Helms-Burton that have been poorly implemented through the years and other parts that have been ignored by both Republican and Democratic administrations.
While Poblete said stricter enforcement of Helms-Burton would be great, “it’s not a cure-all.”
He said the best outcome would be to use it as a tool to get Cuba and the United States to the negotiating table to finally settle pending claims against Cuba. “The claims have been waiting a very, very long time,” said Poblete.
The U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, a Justice Department agency that adjudicates claims against foreign governments, has certified nearly 6,000 U.S. claims for corporate holdings, ranches, sugar mills, homes and personal property that were seized from U.S. citizens. In today’s dollars those claims would be worth around $8 billion.
Not included in the certified claims are claims by Cubans who later became U.S. citizens. However, under Title III of Helms-Burton, not only U.S. citizens whose properties were taken after the 1959 Revolution but also those who were Cuban citizens when their properties were seized and later became U.S. citizens would be allowed to sue.
Cuba, meanwhile, has set a price tag of hundreds of billions of dollars for its counter claims, which it says are the accumulated damages of more than a half-century of U.S. hostility.
After an initial meeting in December 2015 on the certified claims, claims related to unsatisfied U.S. court judgments against Cuba, the claims of Cuba and claims by the U.S. government, the two sides have met only two more times, most recently in January 2017. So far little progress has been made beyond exchanging views on technical details of the claims.
“The claims must be settled or there is certain to be conflict,” said Garcia-Bengochea.
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi