One of Obama’s parting acts: Suspending lawsuit provision of Helms-Burton
BY MIMI WHITEFIELD
In his last month in office, former President Barack Obama preempted
what could have been one of President Donald Trump’s first actions on
Cuba: he suspended a section of the Helms-Burton Act that allows former
owners of commercial property expropriated by Cuba to sue foreign
companies “trafficking” in those confiscated holdings.
President Bill Clinton signed the Helms-Burton Act, which among other
things sets strict conditions that must be met by Cuba before the U.S.
embargo against the island is lifted, in 1996 soon after Cuba shot down
two Brothers to the Rescue planes, resulting in the deaths of four South
But no one has ever filed suit because every U.S. president since has
routinely suspended the lawsuit provision every six months. The fear has
been that letting the lawsuits go forward would alienate important
trading partners such as Canada and EU countries whose citizens have
invested in Cuba. Opponents contend that Section III of Helms-Burton
violates international treaties by attempting to punish foreign
companies for business they conduct outside U.S. borders.
On Jan. 4, former Secretary of State John Kerry notified Congress that
Obama had suspended the lawsuit provision for another six months,
effective Feb. 1. The Trump administration won’t be able to take action
on the provision until this summer but it could make other changes in
U.S. policy toward Cuba.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said at a briefing Friday that a
“full review of all U.S. policies towards Cuba” is under way. “The
president is committed to an agenda of ensuring human rights for all
citizens throughout the world. And as we review those policies in Cuba,
that will be forefront in their policy discussions,” Spicer said.
Under Obama, there was a rapprochement with Cuba that included both
countries reopening respective embassies, the signing of 22 agreements
on topics of mutual interest, the resumption of regularly scheduled
commercial airline and cruise service to Cuba, and a limited commercial
and travel opening to the island.
Trump has said variously that he would get a better deal than Obama and
that he might consider shutting down the opening unless Cuba makes
Section III of Helms-Burton was designed to have a chilling effect on
foreign investment in Cuba. If the president doesn’t exercise a waiver,
it would allow the preparation of lawsuits in U.S. federal courts
against those using, for example, tourism properties, mining operations
or seaports where there are prior claims.
“There are individuals who maintain they have Title III-actionable
claims relating to Jose Martí International Airport and the port at
Santiago de Cuba,” said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade
and Economic Council. “United States-based air carriers and those from
other countries could find their assets attached if they do not avoid
the Republic of Cuba. Passenger cruise ships and cargo ships might avoid
docking and unloading [in Santiago] for fear of expensive and enduring
Cuba is actively courting foreign investors and says it needs foreign
investment of around $2.5 billion a year to reach a goal of 7 percent
annual economic growth. Since Cuba’s new foreign investment law went
into effect in 2014, it has only attracted about $1.3 billion in
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Source: Obama suspended lawsuit provision of Helms-Burton Act | Miami