A federal judge ordered four cruise lines based in Florida and that included Cuba in their itineraries to pay more than $400 million in damages to the US company that had the concession to operate some of the docks in the port of Havana and that was illegally expropriated by Fidel Castro in 1960, under a law that punishes the “trafficking of stolen goods” in Cuba.
The long-awaited decision by U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom on Friday follows another major ruling in March in which Bloom found that the four companies — Carnival, MSC SA, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian — committed “acts of trafficking” and engaged in “forbidden tourism” by taking American travelers to Cuba and using Havana port facilities that Castro confiscated.
The Cuban government never compensated Havana Docks, the US company with the legal rights to exploit the facilities and whose ownership claim was certified by the Justice Department’s Foreign Claims Settlement Commission.
The four cruise lines, which are registered outside the United States but maintain their principal place of business in Florida, would have to pay Havana Docks $439 million in total plus attorneys’ fees and costs, according to the ruling.
The court ordered each company to pay the amount of the original property claim plus decades of simple interest. But the number is even higher because the law that punishes the use of confiscated assets in Cuba, the Helms-Burton Act or Freedom Act of 1996, allows the court to triple the amount of compensation awarded.
“The defendants’ crimes in these cases have been established, and the Court found that the defendants derived significant amounts of proceeds, in the hundreds of millions of dollars each, from their illicit trafficking activities and to the detriment of the plaintiff,” the lawsuit wrote. judge. “A lesser award, as Defendants suggest, would not have an effective deterrent purpose, as a lesser award could possibly be considered simply a cost of doing business.”
The key provision of the Helms-Burton Act that allows people to sue those who use illegally seized assets in Cuba, called Title III, has been suspended by every president since Bill Clinton signed it until Donald Trump took office. Breaking with tradition, Trumo activated it in 2019, opening the door to dozens of lawsuits.
Still, skepticism persisted as to whether the plaintiffs, mostly Cuban and American heirs to the companies expropriated in the 1960s, would be able to navigate all the legal hurdles involved in these complicated cases and find sympathetic ears in the courts.
While Friday’s decision could be appealed, it shows that at least some Helms-Burton-based lawsuits could be won and end up with millions of dollars in payouts, offering hope to Americans, and especially Cuban-American families who have hoped for many years for reparations for Castro’s actions. At the same time, the multimillion-dollar fine sends a warning to potential investors and to those who wish to do business with the Cuban government in disputed ownership properties.
“This is a very important ruling by Judge Bloom,” said Bob Martinez, head of the Havana Docks legal defense team and a partner at the Colson Hicks Eidson law firm in Coral Gables. “The commercial use of assets seized in Cuba in violation of US law carries clearly detailed, well-known and publicized legal consequences. After decades of pursuing their legal rights, Havana Docks is one step closer to justice. Havana Docks appreciates Judge Bloom’s thorough and careful review of the facts and the law.”
The case was also closely watched because it set a precedent for lawsuits related to travel providers such as cruise ships and airlines. These companies have tried to argue in court that they were authorized by the then Barack Obama administration to do business with Cuba and that their dealings were covered by a “legal travel” exception in the embargo regulations.
But the judge dismissed that defense after Havana Docks’ lawyers showed the court evidence of tourist activities offered by cruise lines to their passengers, generally through tourism agencies contracted by the Cuban government.
Despite the relaxation of some sanctions during the brief thaw under Obama, tourist travel to Cuba was prohibited at the time and remains so. Cruise voyages to Cuba began in 2015 and ended in June 2019.
The fact that the Treasury Department issued travel licenses “and the defendants were encouraged to do so by executive branch officials, including the president, does not automatically exempt them from liability if they engaged in statutory tourism,” the statement wrote. judge in March.
Hundreds of court documents reviewed by the Miami Herald showed that cruise lines offered excursions to the beach, to the Tropicana cabaret in Havana and bartending lessons to learn how to make mojitos, among other activities that do not fit the description of “educational.” and travel to encourage contacts between peoples, the category of legal travel invoked by cruise lines to take Americans to Cuba.
According to records, the companies earned at least $1.1 billion in revenue and paid $138 million to Cuban government entities.
A Carnival spokeswoman told the Herald that the company does not believe its actions were wrong.
“Carnival Corporation engaged in legal travel explicitly authorized, authorized, and encouraged by the United States government,” said Jody Venturoni. “We strongly disagree with both the ruling and the sentence, and we plan to appeal these decisions.”
The parties have been engaged in fierce litigation for more than two years over the question of whether or not the cruise lines “trafficked” in confiscated goods when docking at the port of Havana. Havana Docks has a U.S. government-certified claim for loss of assets and a concession dating from 1934 to operate three docks in the port of Havana that decades later were used as a cruise terminal receiving American travelers.
Norwegian, MSC SA and Royal Caribbean did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment.
This story was originally published on December 30, 2022 9:03 p.m.