The Trump administration announced Monday that it is tightening the six-decade trade embargo on Cuba by allowing lawsuits against Cuban companies using properties confiscated after its 1959 revolution, though the impact appears to be largely symbolic.
The announcement limits lawsuits to a list of about 200 Cuban businesses and government agencies that are already subject to special U.S. sanctions because they are tied to the Cuban military and intelligence ministries.
Virtually none of the businesses have any links to the U.S. legal or financial systems, meaning the ability to sue is unlikely to have any effect on the Cuban economy or foreign businesses that work with the socialist government.
Some of the businesses on the list are hotels operated as joint ventures with foreign companies, but the Trump administration measure does not allow the foreign companies themselves to be sued, a State Department official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
Every president since Bill Clinton has suspended a section of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act that would allow such lawsuits because they would snarl companies from U.S.-allied countries in years of complicated litigation that could prompt international trade claims against the United States.
The new action allows a small portion of Title III of the act to take effect, but the Trump administration raised the possibility of more biting sanctions in the near future: It said this suspension would expire after 30 days while most previous suspensions have lasted six months.
The Cuban government called that an "unacceptable threat against the world."
"I strongly reject the State Department's announcement to authorize lawsuits under Title III of the Helms-Burton act, against a list of Cuban companies arbitrarily sanctioned by the Trump administration," Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said on Twitter.
Major investors in Cuba include British tobacco giant Imperial Brands, which runs a joint venture with the Cuban government making premium cigars; Spanish hoteliers Iberostar and Melia, who run dozens of hotels across the island; and French beverage-maker Pernod-Ricard, which makes Havana Club rum with a Cuban state distiller.
"It is not intended to affect European companies that are currently doing business in Cub," the State Department official said. "You could not sue a European or Japanese partner in a joint venture."
Attorneys for Americans with claims on confiscated properties said the Trump decision to announce an extremely limited partial lifting of Title III of the Helms-Burton act may itself be illegal because it violates their clients' rights to sue.
"If this is the first step in a strategic effort that will lead to full enforcement of US law, it may be a good first step," said attorney Jason Poblete, who represents a group of Americans whose property was confiscated. "However, partial waivers are not mentioned in the statute and it raises potential equal protection and maybe other constitutional questions."
The measure is being presented as retaliation for Cuba's support of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who the U.S. is trying to oust in favor of opposition leader Juan Guaido.
"Today expect the United States to take the first in a series of steps to hold the regime in #Cuba accountable for its 60 years of crimes & illegality which includes its support for the murderous #MaduroCrimeFamily," Florida Sen. Marco Rubio wrote on Twitter. "Justice is coming. And more to come."
After nearly 60 years of trade embargo, the Cuban economy is in a period of consistently low growth of about 1 percent a year, with foreign investment at roughly $2 billion, far below what it needs to spur more prosperity.
But tourism, remittances and subsidized oil from Venezuela have allowed the government to maintain basic services and a degree of stability that appears unshaken by the Trump administration's recent moves against Cuba and its major remaining allies in Latin America — Venezuela and Nicaragua.
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