After 23-year wait, US squeezes Cuba on confiscated property
Fox News neocon and soon-to-be Trump national security adviser John Bolton. (Image via Wikimedia Commons. )

President Donald Trump will open the way for lawsuits in US courts over property confiscated by Cuba, enforcing a controversial law that could rattle the island's economy and anger European allies after more than two decades of delay.

Ever since Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act in 1996, US presidents starting with Bill Clinton have used their power to suspend the key provision every six months, mindful of the international consequences.

Those once-routine waivers are now over. A senior administration official said national security advisor John Bolton will formally unveil the shift Wednesday in a speech in Miami to expatriates from Cuba as well as Venezuela and Nicaragua, two other countries in Latin America with leftist governments opposed by Trump.

Bolton "will announce the enforcement of Title III of the Helms-Burton Act," the official said.

Under the 1996 law, Cuban exiles will be allowed to head to US courts to sue both private companies and the Havana government for profiting from properties nationalized after Fidel Castro's 1959 communist revolution.

While US courts cannot directly enforce decisions inside Cuba, the Helms-Burton Act is meant to send a chilling message to foreign investors -- including Americans -- who may increasingly decide to exit or steer clear of the island.

When it was initially passed, the law had been strongly opposed by the European Union, which worries about legal repercussions for its businesses in the United States.

A related provision restricts entry into the United States of anyone who is connected to an unresolved claim in Cuba over confiscated property.

Republican lawmakers who have long pushed for tough action on Cuba have rejoiced at the Trump administration's signals since January that it was moving to fully enforce the Helms-Burton Act.

AFP/File / YAMIL LAGE A group of tourists walks in February 2019 past a billboard with revolutionary slogans in Havana, which had become increasingly attractive to US visitors amid a thaw led by president Barack Obama

"Years of consecutive extensions may have lulled some into a false sense of impunity," said Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican of Cuban descent.

"Yet now companies which willingly entangle themselves in partnerships with the anti-American, illegitimate and oppressive regime in Cuba are on notice that they will be held responsible for their part in callously benefiting from the extensive losses suffered by victims of the regime," he said in a recent statement.

- Major legal action expected -

The US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a New York-based group that supports commercial ties between the longtime adversaries, said that companies with combined revenues of $678 billion could be targeted in Helms-Burton lawsuits.

AFP/File / PAUL J. RICHARDS Arch-conservative senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, seen here in 2002, spearheaded a tough law on Cuba that is being enforced after more than two decades

According to the group, companies that have been mentioned for potential lawsuits include major international airlines, including US-based American, Delta and United, hotels chains such as Marriott and Accor and companies as diverse of French liquor maker Pernod Ricard and Chinese telecom giant Huawei.

Trump's move marks a drastic shift from his predecessor Barack Obama, who had normalized relations with Cuba, saying that a half-century of US efforts to topple the regime had failed.

Obama eased travel restrictions for Americans and himself visited Cuba, signaling to many US businesses that the time had come to return to the island.

Trump has also been pushing for the ouster of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, a leftist firebrand who presides over a crumbling economy that has sparked a massive exodus.

It is the latest time that Trump has moved ahead with a policy long seen as too disruptive. In 2017, he moved the US embassy in Israel to bitterly divided Jerusalem, similarly ending years of waivers of a US law.

The Helms-Burton Law is named for far-right Republican senator Jesse Helms and congressman Dan Burton. They drafted the law passed by Congress after Cuba shot down two aircraft flown by exiled activists, putting an end to tentative efforts by Clinton to try to repair relations.