US Administration tightening sanctions on Cuba

In a move widely seen as heralding the introduction of further sanctions against Cuba, the Trump Administration said on 4 March that Title III of Helms Burton will only be waived for an additional 30 days to 17 April 2019. The Title allows registered US claimants of expropriated assets to take legal action against those companies and individuals deemed to be making use of (‘trafficking’) in such assets.

Announcing his decision on 4 March, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, said that in addition to the 30-day extension an exception was being made that has the effect of allowing registered and unregistered claimants to act immediately against the approximately 200 Cuban entities and sub-entities on its Cuba Restricted List. This includes companies and entities directly connected to the Cuban military.

The State Department said that the measure is not intended to affect European companies that are currently doing business in Cuba. However, if at the end of the 30-day period the Trump Administration allows US citizens including Cuban-Americans who were not US nationals at the time of confiscation to bring law suits, it could see any entity including non-Cuban companies and individuals that have benefitted from confiscated property, being sued.

At present about 5,000 claims for confiscated assets are recognised by the US State Department, although many are very small. Some estimates suggest there may be up to 200,000 claims that are not registered.

The decision to shorten the waiver, according to a senior US official speaking on a non-attributable basis, was to make a determination on ‘how this is affecting the calculus of others’ and ‘to encourage any person who is doing business in Cuba to reconsider whether they are trafficking in confiscated property’. The decision, the official said, was ‘necessary to the national interests of the United States and will expedite a transition to democracy in Cuba’.

The State Department Briefing made clear that further sanctions may follow and assess what further action may be necessary ‘to expedite democracy and support efforts by the Cuban people to bring reform to their country’.

The official said that in addition, the US was ‘continuing to encourage the international community to press Cuba on human rights and demand that the regime stop harassing and detaining peaceful activists and independent journalists, release political prisoners, and provide for a democratic and prosperous future for the Cuban people’. He also said that the US would continue to encourage international partners to hold Cuba accountable for ‘propping up’ the Venezuelan government.

In answers to media questions, it became clear that the US remained concerned about the possible reaction of the EU, Canada and other allies who have previously said that the legislation is extra-territorial and actionable at the WTO. Noting that Washington had consulted with its international partners as ‘their concerns were a factor in the decision-making process’, he said that the US was continuing to engage with allies on any future decisions under Title III.

Commenting, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida), who is widely believed with John Bolton, the US National Security Adviser, to be the architect of the Trump administration’s Latin American policy, described the move in a Tweet as “the first in a series of steps to hold the regime in Cuba accountable for its 60 years of crimes and illegality which includes its support for the murderous #MaduroCrimeFamily”.

Further measures possible

Rubio’s comments relate to other possible measures against Cuba that could make trade increasingly difficult and create new uncertainties surrounding investment.

Speaking recently to the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, Mauricio Claver-Carone, the Director of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the US National Security Council, placed US policy in a broader hemispheric context. He suggested that Havana’s support for Venezuela and the Maduro government was intended to avoid US pressure being turned towards Cuba, saying that “the only way to counteract (Cuban) influence in Venezuela” would be to increase US pressure on Cuba’s Government.

Among the new measures believed to be under consideration beyond permanently ceasing to waive Title III of Helms Burton are targeted sanctions on Cuban officials believed to be involved in Venezuela; returning Cuba to the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism; conducting a review of all US business licenses; and restoring the parole programme that encourages the defection of Cuban doctors on medical missions abroad.

Cuba responds

In a strongly worded response Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected what it described as ‘the new escalation in the aggressive conduct of the United States against Cuba’.

In a lengthy 4 March statement, it sought to reassure economic partners and foreign companies operating in Cuba, noting the new Cuban Constitution recognises the guarantees for investment incorporated in the Foreign Investment Law No. 118 of 2014. It also observed that Cuba had in the past had reached and honoured global compensation agreements with other nations that invest in Cuba such as Spain, Switzerland, Canada, the UK, Germany and France, but the US had been unwilling to do so.

The US decision, it said, imposed additional obstacles to the country’s goals of economic development and progress, but the United States ‘will continue to fail in its central objective of forcibly subduing the sovereign will of Cubans and our determination to build socialism’.

In a Tweet President Díaz-Canel said that the US decision represented a colonial desire for annexation and “aims to bring about the change of the political and economic system in Cuba”.


Cuba Briefing is available on a subscription-only basis. Please click here to sign up to a free trial