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Helms-Burton: Don't Profit Off Stolen Property

Foreign investors should be more interested in doing business with the US than with Cuba, as possible legal disputes may cost them more money than they will ever make on the island.

Los Ángeles

"Whoever steals from a thief shall be forgiven for 100 years," says a Spanish idiom – and whoever profits from something stolen sooner or later runs into trouble with Justice authorities, a fact that the recent enforcement of Title III of the Helms-Burton Act has shone a light upon. Foreign businessmen who have been profiting in Cuba off businesses based on properties stolen from their legitimate owners by Fidel Castro  may face legal problems.

Suing, in US courts, foreign companies making money in Cuba with properties that were confiscated without paying their owners a penny is an act of justice. It was a long time coming, but in the end it seems that the old adage that "justice always catches up with you" is proving true.

Castro I should never have seized these properties from Cuban businessmen. They were not smugglers, owners of mafia-related companies, swindlers, or money launderers. What the head of the "Revolutionary Government" should have done was just the opposite: introduce laws and fiscal incentives to encourage and support investment in Cuban private enterprise, the backbone of what was once one of the most powerful economies in the Americas.

Though many years have passed, it is unfair to look the other way now and ignore how the rights of our parents and grandparents who had businesses in Cuba, until the Communist curse fell on them, were trampled. Rifles in hand, their properties were wrested from them, including their houses and everything in them, their savings, and their right to retirement, and they were ordered to leave the homeland that they were making more prosperous every day.

The new socialist regime's larceny of their property was precisely what brought the dynamic socio-economic development that had been flourishing on the island, especially in the 50s, to a halt.

By fleecing the "bourgeoisie" the Stalinist duo of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara killed the goose that lays the golden eggs. From one of the three Latin American countries with the highest per capita income (along with Argentina and Uruguay), Cuba became one of the poorest nations in the Americas, with a food rationing card that is 56 years old and an international disgrace.

Accomplices to horrendous abuses

It is also an outrage that the European Union (EU), in this specific case led by Spain, and also Canada, have opposed the pursuit of justice in this matter. European and Canadian businessmen are accomplices to the dictatorship's theft of up to 95% of the salaries of Cubans who work in their companies based on the island. The regime prohibits these foreigners from hiring their own employees. It is the State that pays them, enabling it to abusively siphon off most of their remuneration – a violation of the labor rights in force all around the civilized world. These businessmen, above all, want to exploit the cheapest labor force in the Americas, except for Venezuela's: Cuba's. The average monthly salary in Cuba is 30 dollars, while in Haiti it is 77, more than double, according to the World Bank.

These abuses would be unthinkable in the countries of these businesspeople, but they consider them normal and welcome if they occur in Cuba. If a European government, or that of Canada, behaved like Raul Castro's, and made a profit off stolen property, and seized wages from workers, an international scandal would ensue, with harsh UN sanctions.

But when this happens in Cuba the government is supported, coddled, and attempts are even made to defend it in court. It should be noted that foreign businessmen on the island have no guarantee that the same thing that happened to their predecessors 60 years ago will not happen to them too. The Cuban government from that time remains in power today.

A scare campaign

As expected, Castroism has organized a media campaign to foment fear on the island, telling families that they will be evicted from their homes, and that the self-employed will lose their businesses because their premises will be take over by their former owners.

False. This is not a Cuban law to return property, houses or property deeds. It is a US law that grants the right to sue foreign business owners who benefit from property stolen from its owners.

Companies that exploit non-residential properties that were worth over $50,000 USD when they were confiscated, or large residences of more than $50,000 that were handed over to the regime's higher-ups and their families, can be sued. For example, the walled mansion of Mariela Castro, the tyrant's daughter; and that of his granddaughter, Vilmita, in Miramar, which she rents for $ 650 per night, could be the targets of suits when the tyranny on the island falls.

Major suits have already been filed in the US: that of the family heir to the cruise ship port in Santiago de Cuba, against the Carnival cruise company; and that to the Exxon-Mobil oil company, against the Cuba-Petroleum Union (CUPET); and another against the CIMEX Corporation. There are more in the works.

However, no one in the US can sue a school, medical clinic or other education and public health facility on the island, because the Castros have never allowed foreign investments in the areas of Education and Public Health.

With regard to the threats from the EU and Canada to go to court to defend the interests of their businessmen in Cuba, the efficacy of this route is uncertain, though the EU and Canada certainly have laws that protect the interests of their companies, and prevent the recognition or enforcement of judicial decisions in Europe or Canada as a result of the Helms-Burton Act.

They allied with the wrong partner

But we are talking about businessmen who profit, knowingly, off properties that were not legally acquired, but rather inexcusably seized by the State, their only partner in the country. According to what ethics or reasonable law can one defend those who traffic in stolen property? 

Their lawyers could, perhaps, prove that there is no jurisprudence upon which to proceed, that there are no judicial precedents to prosecute those who profit off stolen businesses. But, undoubtedly, the potential respondents allied with the wrong partner, a criminal regime that actually appropriates workers' salaries.

This is why it does not seem that the warnings of Italy's pro-Castro Federica Mogherini, head of European diplomacy, are going to thwart the US, unless Washington backs down, unlikely with the Trump Administration.

In addition, regardless of the legal mess, in general the business volume of the potential defendants is paltry compared to what they could have in the US, or in other normal countries, and without having to share their profits with Cuba's Communist state. Investors should be more interested in doing business with the US than with an impoverished Cuba. Pragmatic people do not fight with the cook. Possible litigation may cost the defendants more money than they could make on the Island.

I am among those who believe that, before going to court, many of the culprits will prefer to reach agreements with the claimants, to offer them compensation.   

Those who have the most reasons to worry are Raúl Castro and his military staff, in charge of the island's economy, as the possibility of problematic and costly litigation with the US is going to scare off investors who are already operating on the island, or who were considering it.

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