Trump reverses policy, allows lawsuits against businesses in Cuba

The Trump administration announced Wednesday it will allow U.S. citizens to sue foreign businesses using property seized during the 1959 Cuban revolution, reversing two decades of policy as it escalates pressure on the communist island nation.

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoAfghan president vows to take revenge after Islamic State attack on wedding The Hill's Morning Report - Trump on defense over economic jitters Latest pro-democracy rally draws tens of thousands in Hong Kong MORE said the administration will not renew a prohibition on lawsuits in a decision that also sets up a showdown with European nations and other allies whose companies do business in Cuba.

“Sadly, Cuba’s most prominent export these days is not cigars or rum. It’s oppression,” Pompeo said during brief remarks at the State Department. “Detente with the regime has failed. Cozying up to Cuban dictators will always be a black mark on this great nation’s long record of defending human rights.”

The administration will begin enforcing a provision in the 1996 Helms-Burton Act that allows Americans whose property was confiscated by former Cuban President Fidel Castro’s government to sue companies using that property.

Past presidents have waived that section of the law due to concern that a flurry of lawsuits could spark tensions with allies and discourage Havana from adopting democratic reforms.

Pompeo said Americans can begin filing lawsuits against foreign firms on May 2. U.S. officials said no exceptions will be made for any companies.

“Those citizens’ opportunities for justice have been put out of reach for more than two decades,” said Pompeo. “Any person or company doing business in Cuba should heed this announcement.”

Kimberly Breier, the top State Department official handling the Western Hemisphere, said the U.S. government has already certified nearly 6,000 claims valued at more than $8 billion in total, including actual value and interest. Around 200,000 other claims have not been certified and could ask for tens of billions more in damages.

She said the only way to avoid possible litigation is for companies to ensure they are not operating on or with seized property.  

The move is part of Trump’s efforts to crack down on Cuba for its support of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government, which has held on to power despite international support for Venezuelan National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó.

Trump has also sought to reverse former President Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba, which sought to end the Cold War-era policy of isolation and open the island to increased trade and foreign investment.   

White House national security adviser John Bolton is expected to tout the decision during a speech in Miami to a group of veterans from the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs mission to overthrow Castro.

The announcement provoked furious reactions from European nations, who threatened to challenge the policy change at the World Trade Organization, as well as Canada. Both have significant investments in Cuba.

Trump had made a serious of moves during his two-plus years in office to roll back Obama’s opening with Cuba. The U.S. recently scrapped a deal that would have allowed Cuban baseball players to sign directly with MLB teams without having to defect.

The administration has also tightened trade and travel restrictions that were loosened by the 44th president.