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US backs away from allowing suits against foreign companies in Cuba

Old American cars drive near the emblematic Hotel Habana Libre, which could be affected if the United States activated Title III of the Helms-Burton Act
Old American cars drive near the emblematic Hotel Habana Libre, which could be affected if the United States activated Title III of the Helms-Burton Act AFP/File
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Washington (AFP)

The United States on Monday backed away from a threat to allow Cuban exiles to file suit in US courts against foreign companies operating in Cuba, limiting such legal action to Cuban entities.

The 1996 Helms-Burton Act in theory permits Cuban exiles to pursue claims against companies that profit from assets nationalized after the 1959 Cuban revolution.

But a succession of US presidents have waived the clause every six months to avoid offending allies whose companies might become a target of such suits.

When the law was passed, the State Department estimated there were as many as 200,000 suits that could be filed if the Helms-Burton provision were activated.

President Donald Trump's administration has threatened in recent weeks to put the Helms-Burton provision in play as it takes aim at Cuba as part of a "troika of tyranny" with Venezuela and Nicaragua.

The European Union, the biggest source of foreign investment in Cuba, rose up in opposition, and State Department officials acknowledged its concerns were taken into account in reaching Monday's decision.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that some suits would be allowed for the first time under Helms-Burton, from March 19. But they would be limited to Cuban enterprises controlled at least in part by the military, the intelligence services or security forces.

Even in the case of joint ventures involving Cuban entities and foreign companies, "this is only allowing actions against Cuban entities," a senior State Department official said.

"It is not intended to affect European companies that are currently doing business in Cuba," the official said.

"You can sue the Cuban entity or the Cuban sub-entity. This action does not authorize the suit of a European, or Japanese or any other company in some other country," the official said.

The United States wants to maintain pressure on Cuba, which it accuses of supporting the regime of Nicolas Maduro at a time when Washington is pushing for his ouster.

The latest suspension of the Helms-Burton provision for all other suits is only for a month, until April 17, however, so that its impact can be assessed and changes made if necessary.

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