On April 17, 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that beginning on May 2, U.S. citizens would be able to file lawsuits against foreign companies that use property seized by the Cuban government. That same day, National Security Advisor John Bolton announced new sanctions against Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. The new policy and sanctions are aimed at weakening Cuba's communist regime and to pressure these governments to end support for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
The decision to allow lawsuits against foreign companies that use seized property overturns a longstanding policy to suspend that provision (Title III) of the Helms-Burton Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1996. The properties in question are those seized by Cuba's communist government after Fidel Castro came to power in the 1959 revolution. Individuals found to be "trafficking" in such property could have their U.S. visas denied or revoked and their U.S. assets threatened. These provisions could affect many foreign and U.S. investors, especially as there will reportedly not be any exemptions granted to U.S. companies conducting business in Cuba.
In his announcement, Pompeo said that Cuba's activities undermine the security and stability of countries in the Western Hemisphere, including by supporting President Maduro. He denounced the Cuban government for depriving its people of fundamental human rights and noted that Cuban Americans now have a chance to redress grievances against the Castro regime.
The Foreign Claims Settlement Commission had already certified nearly 6,000 Cuba-related claims that are now valued at approximately $8 billion. Those claims were brought by people who were U.S. citizens at the time the property was seized. The new policy allows individuals who are currently U.S. citizens, but may not have been at the time of seizure, to bring claims. The policy change could result in up to 200,000 additional claims valued at tens of billions of dollars.
Canada and the European Union issued a joint statement condemning the policy changes and noted that they will have a significant impact on EU and Canadian entities involved in the Cuban economy. They said they would not allow enforcement of any foreign judgments based on Title III of the Helms-Burton Act in their regions and threatened the possibility for a complex web of litigations. The European Commission also issued a statement opposing the policy. It said the decision was a breach of the EU-US agreements of 1997 and 1998 in which the United States agreed to waive Title III of the Helms-Burton Act. The EU announced it would consider pursuing WTO action and using the EU Blocking Statute to protect its interests.
In addition to the policy change, the U.S. government announced it would impose additional sanctions against Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela termed by Bolton the "Troika of Tyranny" saying the new measures reiterate the United States' "commitment to democracy and human rights in Latin America." The Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control designated the Central Bank of Venezuela as an SDN party. Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said the designation will hinder the Maduro regime's exploitation of the bank for conducting illegitimate activities. This designation follows other recent sanctions on Venezuelan entities intended to pressure President Nicolas Maduro to step down (on which we have previously reported here and here). Details of new sanctions against Cuba have yet to be announced.