Carnival sued in US over seized property in Cuba, in a first

Miami (AFP) –


Carnival, the US cruise line, was sued Thursday over its use of port facilities in Cuba seized after the 1959 revolution, in the first such action under a previously unenforced US law.

President Donald Trump's administration announced last month it would begin enforcing a controversial provision of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act allowing Cuban-Americans to sue in US courts over property confiscated by Cuba.

The US decision, which went into effect Thursday, is expected to set in motion a flood of US lawsuits against foreign companies that do business in Cuba.

The lawsuit against Florida-based Carnival was filed early Thursday, Bob Martinez, the lawyer for plaintiffs Javier Garcia Bengochea and Mickael Behn, said.

They are seeking compensation for Carnival's use of port facilities in Santiago de Cuba and Havana that they claim were improperly seized from their families by the regime of Fidel Castro.

Carnival "was the first cruise line to benefit from our stolen property, so they deserve the ignominious distinction of being the first to be sued under this law," said Bengochea, who claims to be the legitimate owner of the port of Santiago.

Behn asserts ownership rights over piers in Havana.

"In the 1960s, the Castro brothers and their Communist Party friends stole the property of my grandfather," he said. "We can finally get justice after 60 years."

A Carnival spokesman, Roger Frizzell, said the line's schedule of cruises to Cuba remains unchanged.

By activating Title III of the Helms-Burton Act, the US administration is seeking to weaken the Cuban government by scaring off foreign investors.

Before Trump, every US president had waived enforcement of the Title III provision of Helms-Burton, in part to avoid conflicts with Washington allies.

The European Union and Canada have expressed displeasure with the move, insisting they will protect their nationals' interests.

"This will cause unnecessary friction and undermines trust and predictability in the transatlantic partnership," EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement on Thursday.

She said the EU considers application of Helms-Burton provision "contrary to international law" and would take "appropriate measures," including at the World Trade Organization.

The EU also could invoke a so-called "blocking statute," which forbids EU firms from complying with certain US sanctions, allowing them to recover damages and nullifying foreign court rulings against them.

- Exodus of investors? -

Cuba's envoy to the EU, Norma Goicochea, expressed confidence that the EU would stand firm.

"We don't fear an exodus of investors. We are confident that the EU will take all measures to protect its investors (...) and that the decision to continue business with Cuba will prevail," Goicochea told AFP.

Cuban-Americans, however, were expected to inundate US courts with lawsuits seeking compensation for the use of confiscated properties in Cuba.

US airlines that fly to Cuba could be next.

Jose Ramon Lopez Requeiro, whose father Jose Lopez Vilaboy was the main shareholder of the Havana airport before the revolution, is expected to file suit in the coming days against various US airlines.

"There will be hundreds of lawsuits," said Nick Gutierrez, a lawyer and president of the National Association of Landowners of Cuba, which lobbied heavily for the right to sue in US courts.