Pact on U.S.-Cuba Flights Reopens Battle for Seized Property
By FRANCES ROBLESFEB. 16, 2016
MIAMI — The Obama administration’s top transportation officials will
join Cuban dignitaries at the Hotel Nacional in Havana on Tuesday to
sign an agreement that will restore commercial airline service between
the two countries for the first time in more than 50 years.
José Ramón López, 62, the exiled heir to the Havana airport and to
Cuba’s national airline, was not invited.
This being Cuba, even a significant diplomatic announcement has a back
story involving old wounds, confiscated properties and uphill legal battles.
Mr. López is the son of the former owner of the airport, whose property
was seized by the Communists after the triumph of the Cuban revolution.
He says he deserves compensation if the United States is going to agree
to a commercial deal involving the airport with the government that
stole his inheritance.
“The airport in Havana is private property — mine,” Mr. López said. “How
are American corporations going to go there and benefit from it?”
Mr. López says his is a cautionary tale that highlights the perils of
doing business in Cuba, where unresolved, decades-old disputes
complicate efforts by Cuba and the United States to resume not only
diplomatic relations but also economic ones.
Mr. López is a former Cuban merchant mariner who left Cuba in 1989 and
moved to Miami seven years ago. He has paperwork showing that he is the
only child of José López Vilaboy, an associate of Fulgencio Batista, the
Cuban dictator who was overthrown early in 1959.
Mr. López Vilaboy ran to safety on Dec. 31, 1958, when it became clear
that a young bearded rebel named Fidel Castro had defeated the Batista
forces and that the dictator would step down. Mr. López Vilaboy hid in
the Guatemalan Embassy for nine months before fleeing the country; his
properties were immediately seized.
Among his many holdings were a bank, a couple of hotels, factories, a
newspaper, two airlines and Rancho Boyeros, the airport serving Havana
now known as José Martí International Airport.
As far as the new Cuban government was concerned, Mr. López Vilaboy’s
many properties were the fruits of his close relationship to a corrupt
Mr. López Vilaboy eventually arrived in South Florida, and he lived
quietly in a two-bedroom apartment in Miami Beach until his death in 1989.
He never saw his son after he left Cuba.
In 2010, a probate court in Miami declared Mr. López to be one of Mr.
López Vilaboy’s heirs.
Over the years, he met with various lawyers, but he said they shrugged
him off, viewing him as just one of the thousands of Cuban-Americans who
lost property in the revolution — which they had little chance of ever
Then it was announced late last week that the American secretary of
transportation, Anthony Foxx, and the assistant secretary of state for
economic and business affairs, Charles H. Rivkin, would lead a
delegation to Cuba for a signing ceremony at the Hotel Nacional.
By the fall, United States airlines will operate 20 flights a day from
the airport Mr. López still considers his.
“I just don’t understand how American corporations can do business with
my property,” he said. “If they are not giving it to me, then pay me for
Mr. López enlisted the help of Andy S. Gómez, a retired scholar of the
Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of
Miami, who helped him arrange meetings to explore possible legal
recourse. “Americans need to understand the risks of doing business in
Cuba,” Mr. Gómez said.
He said the moment was particularly crucial now, as President Obama
seeks to ease restrictions on doing business with Cuba and as more
American companies flock there hoping to sign deals. Last week, the
Obama administration approved the first American factory to operate in
Cuba in more than 50 years, a small tractor company from Alabama.
The Helms-Burton Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, says
that anyone who profits from properties that were confiscated from
American citizens is liable for damages, even if the owner was not an
American citizen at the time. Yet the law has provisos that allow the
president to decide whether, for the sake of American interests, the law
should be enforced.
It has pretty much never been enforced.
“It would be a slug fest,” said Pedro A. Freyre, a Miami lawyer who
specializes in Cuban business deals. “It would be a brawl, a
free-for-all, everyone suing every Canadian company, airline, hotel, you
name it — and it would be detrimental to U.S. foreign relations.”
Martha Pantin, a spokeswoman for American Airlines, which is expected to
bid for the Cuba routes, said Mr. López’s problem is one best answered
by government agencies. “This is not an airline issue,” she said.
A spokesman for the State Department, who spoke on the condition of
anonymity in keeping with department policy, said officials in the
United States and their Cuban counterparts had touched on the topic
during aviation talks. The State Department is negotiating with the
Cubans over compensation for confiscated properties, but the cases of
people who were not American citizens at the time of the confiscations
were not included in those talks.
And unlike the situation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when heirs
of property owners in the former East Germany received compensation for
seized assets, the confiscators in Cuba are still in power.
“Claims issues have been one of our highest priorities since we
re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba,” the State Department
The United State Department of Transportation said the administration
could not stop people with legal judgments against the Cuban government
from going to court to seize Cuban assets. But Mr. López does not have a
judgment against the Cuban government or Cubana de Aviación, the
national airline that his father owned.
Even if he did, because of the many judgments by American courts against
the Cuban government, planes belonging to Cubana de Aviación are not
expected to start flying to the United States.
“We do not anticipate Cuban-owned aircraft serving the United States in
the near future,” Thomas S. Engle, deputy assistant secretary for
transportation affairs at the State Department, told reporters on a
conference call last week.
He said negotiators were clear with Havana that the Obama administration
would not be able to stop their planes from being seized by people who
have successfully sued the Cuban government in American courts.
Andrew C. Hall, a Miami lawyer whose client won a $2.8 billion verdict
against the Cuban government, considers himself first in line to seize
Cuban planes should they try to land here.
“If it comes here, I’m going to go get it,” Mr. Hall said. “And if
American Airlines at some point owes Cuba money, I will try to intercept
Mr. Hall said the United States government would be unlikely to get
involved in cases like Mr. López’s, because governments generally have a
right to confiscate property. But the dispute could be among the kind
that help push for a resolution, he said.
“Hopefully, as the political process begins to develop, Cuba will
compensate its citizens for property it confiscated,” Mr. Hall said.
The Cuban government did not respond to a request for comment.”