Six years ago, Oscar Álvarez’s taxi business was booming.
“I hardly had time to rest,” he says. “We picked up passengers at the cruise ship terminal, and we didn’t stop all day.”
These days, Álvarez often struggles to find a fare.
“You could really see the difference when the American cruise ships stopped,” says Álvarez, while he waits for customers in Old Havana next to a red 1958 Cadillac convertible. “They left a big hole, and not just for us. They gave life to the whole city.”
Since 2017, Cuba has been subject to a barrage of U.S. sanctions imposed by Donald Trump and largely kept in place by Joe Biden. Some of the measures, like the 2019 banning of cruise ships, have battered Cuba’s economy, including its fledgling private sector.
Among the most damaging has been the activation of an obscure but potent provision known as Title III.
Part of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, Title III allows U.S. claimants whose property was nationalized during the Cuban Revolution to sue companies for doing business on that property. Suspended for two decades, Trump’s activation of the provision dissuaded companies and investors from doing business in Cuba for fear of being hauled into litigation in the United States.
While the provision has been hailed by Cuban-American hardliners and former property owners as a just means of compensation, it resulted in an exodus of capital from the island, exacerbating a Cuban economic crisis that has fueled a historic wave of migration to the United States.
“I personally witnessed the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars of potential investment. It’s all been derailed.”
“I personally witnessed the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars of potential investment,” says Gregory Biniowsky, a Canadian lawyer who represented companies interested in investing in Cuba. “It’s all been derailed.”
Court records and interviews with lobbyists and top officials from Trump’s White House, including John Bolton and Mauricio Claver-Carone, now reveal what was going on behind the scenes to make Title III the linchpin of a “maximum pressure” policy on Cuba. The documents and conversations chronicle how a lobbying campaign, funded by the heirs of wealthy families who once owned property and businesses on the island, pushed the highest levels of U.S. government to activate the law.
One of those families is that of late telecommunications tycoon Sosthenes Behn, whose descendants may soon enjoy a nine-figure payday thanks to Title III.
The Cuban government won’t have to pay the Behn family. Instead, four private corporations, three of them headquartered in Miami, are on the hook for $450 million (including $10.7 million in legal fees) after a groundbreaking federal court decision.
U.S. District Court Judge Beth Bloom last year ruled that Florida-based Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Royal Caribbean Cruises, in addition to Geneva-based MSC Cruises, are liable for “trafficking” in the Behn family’s expropriated property — a set of three docks in Havana where the cruise ship companies dropped off hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens from 2016 until 2019.
Barack Obama had endorsed the cruises as part of his watershed reconciliation with Cuba. But Bloom, a federal judge in the Southern District of Florida, deemed the cruise ship visits to be unlawful travel. The ruling could have significant economic repercussions for Cuba, which isn’t a party to the lawsuit but is already feeling the effects of the contentious law on which it is based.
“The amounts of money are enormous,” William LeoGrande, professor of government at American University in Washington, D.C., explains. “The fact that this was successful will be a real deterrent to other companies, both in the U.S. and Europe, to doing business in Cuba.”
On May 2, 2019, one of the first Title III lawsuits was filed by Javier García-Bengochea, a retired neurosurgeon based in Jacksonville, demanding damages against the cruise ship companies for their use of Santiago de Cuba docks where his family once did business.
“For the first time in 59 years an American victim of theft by the Castro regime can legitimately stand before you publicly and assert their property rights,” García-Bengochea told reporters outside the federal courthouse in Miami after filing his lawsuit.
García-Bengochea’s disdain for Cuba’s government is commonplace in the Cuban-American community, namely in South Florida, which has the highest concentration of Cuban Americans in the nation. Some of them have waited decades to present their Title III claims in court.
But not all the Title III claimants have been Cuban Americans.
Sosthenes Behn’s great grandson, Mickael Behn, was a U.S. citizen living in London when he joined Bengochea in pursuing the earliest Title III litigation. He held the Behn family’s claim through Delaware-based company Havana Docks, which had a small group of shareholders, including billionaire Warren Buffett, while the lawsuits were making their way through the district court. Most of Havana Docks’ shares were split among Behn and his two cousins, both of whom lived in France, according to court documents.
Mickael Behn spent his life attending shareholder meetings of the company in the elusive hope of reclaiming the piers in Havana.
“The Castro brothers and their Communist Party friends came and stole our property from my grandfather,” he said, holding back tears, after the lawsuits were filed.
The Behn family’s claim to the ports traces back to Sosthenes’ days at the helm of International Telephone & Telegraph (ITT), a massive conglomerate that expanded its communications and industrial production empire across the globe under his purview.
From Hitler to Batista
Sosthenes Behn was born in 1884 to a French mother and Danish father who was the French Consul in the Virgin Islands. He served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War I and later worked as a sugar broker in Puerto Rico before acquiring a local telephone company with his brother, Hernán. In 1920, they founded ITT and within a decade had built a worldwide telecommunications empire.
Sosthenes resided at the Plaza Hotel in New York and directed his company’s operations from a luxury salon at the top of a 34-story skyscraper built in 1928 for ITT.
Dubbed the “Prince of Telephones,” he was known for leveraging political connections in foreign countries to secure government contracts, according to Anthony Sampson’s book The Sovereign State of ITT.
In Spain, Sosthenes acquired control over the country’s telephone system after wining and dining officials of the Francisco Franco regime.
In 1933, he became the first “representative of American finance” to meet with Adolf Hitler, according to archival New York Times documents. Sosthenes secured profits for ITT through the aircraft manufacturer Focke-Wulf’s production of Nazi war planes before ITT’s operational control over its German subsidiaries was extinguished during the war.
Sosthenes helped “build up the Nazi war machine, extending from communications to armaments,” before supporting the U.S. war effort, according to Sampson.
“While ITT Focke-wulf planes were bombing Allied ships, and ITT lines were passing information to German submarines, ITT direction finders were saving other [Allied] ships from [German] torpedoes,” Sampson wrote.
Two decades after the war, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Foreign Claims Settlement Commission (FCSC) granted ITT $27 million in compensation for losses suffered in Germany, including $5 million for damages caused by Allied bombers to its Focke-Wulf plants.
Sosthenes Behn’s penchant for cozying up to political figures extended to Latin America, namely Cuba, where he courted officials on behalf of the ITT-controlled Cuban Telephone Company, according to the late U.S. Ambassador Spruille Braden. In his memoir, Braden wrote that Sosthenes rebuffed his request to stop paying Cuban officials during the first government of Fulgencio Batista. Braden said that Sosthenes told him he needed to maintain at least “a little graft,” which he estimated at $30,000 a year.
During the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy criticized ITT’s gift of a solid gold telephone to Batista. For Kennedy, ITT’s dealings in Cuba were symbolic of how the U.S. government left the impression that it “was more interested in taking money from the Cuban people” than in helping its economy. The gold telephone, now in a Havana museum, was memorialized in The Godfather: Part II, in which a thinly-veiled version of Batista shows off the gift in a meeting with corporate executives and mafia bosses.
Telephones were not Sosthenes’ only business interest in Cuba.
In 1917, he formed the Delaware-based corporation Havana Docks, which acquired a concession to operate a cargo loading and unloading business on three piers in Cuba’s capital.
Waiting for Regime Change
Sosthenes, who died in 1957, wasn’t alive to see his Cuban businesses evaporate.
In March 1959, two months after Fidel Castro’s guerrilla forces arrived in Havana, the revolutionary government took over the Cuban Telephone Company from ITT, ordering a reduction of rates. A year and a half later, the lease held by Havana Docks to operate the piers was taken by the Cuban government along with all other holdings of U.S. companies doing business in Cuba.
Sugar barons, mobsters, multinational corporations, business owners — none were spared.
According to historians and other Cuba experts, the sweeping nationalizations were effectuated not by sudden force, but by decree and over a period of several months.
“To call it theft, since the Cuban government had always agreed to the principle of compensation, would be a simplification,” says Richard Feinberg, who served as Senior Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council from 1993 to 1996.
Cuba’s Law 851, which authorized the nationalizations, required that compensation be given to the U.S. owners of expropriated properties in the form of 30-year bonds financed from sugar sales to the United States.
There was a major catch, however.
The U.S. government had effectively blocked sugar imports from Cuba, which at that time were the linchpin of the Cuban economy.
The possibility of compensation grew even more remote as relations between the two countries worsened after the U.S.-engineered Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the proclamation of the U.S. embargo.
From 1964 to 1972, the FCSC (the same entity that compensated ITT for its damaged German properties) reviewed and certified nearly 6,000 claims for nationalized properties in Cuba, including one from Havana Docks for $9.17 million.
The purpose of the FCSC’s Cuba Claims Program was to help adjudicate compensation for property owners in future settlement negotiations between the U.S. and Cuban governments.
But for nearly half a century, the U.S. government took no steps toward negotiation, according to Johannes Werner, editor of Cuba Standard, a digital news service that covers the Cuban economy. The sanctions and politics in the United States “made it nearly impossible for the U.S. to actually engage,” according to Werner.
Instead, U.S. nationals who had had property nationalized in Cuba waited for regime change.
Meanwhile, Cuba negotiated settlements for nationalized properties with the governments of Canada, Great Britain, France, Spain, and Switzerland. In a Brookings Institute report, Feinberg characterized the settlements as “not large,” noting that Canada was to receive $850,000 from the Cuban government.
Two Decades Dormant
In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the LIBERTAD Act, also known as the Helms-Burton Act after its Republican sponsors Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) and Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN), giving new hope to those who had lost property to Cuba’s nationalizations. The Helms-Burton Act codified the U.S. embargo (known as the “blockade” on the island) and extended its extraterritorial reach via Title III by allowing for lawsuits in U.S. courts against companies doing business in Cuba.
“Foreign businesses are notoriously apprehensive of American litigation,” Robert Muse, a D.C.-based lawyer who advises companies doing business in Cuba, says. “The plan was to put a ring around the island where investment would be so potentially dangerous that nobody would do it.”
Title III’s extraterritorial implications sparked international backlash. The European Union saw Helms-Burton as a violation of international law and passed a resolution compelling EU companies to flout U.S. judicial rulings based on it. Two Canadian MPs introduced a parody bill that called for the descendants of British loyalists who fled to Canada during the American Revolution to reclaim property “confiscated” by the U.S. government.
Facing threats of retaliation from the EU, Canada, and Mexico, Clinton suspended the right to file lawsuits under Title III for six months. He would repeat the suspension every six months until the end of his presidency, as would George W. Bush and Obama.
In 2016, the activation of Title III seemed more unlikely than ever after U.S. and Cuban negotiators broached the prickly topic of the FCSC claims as part of the historic détente brokered by Obama and Raúl Castro.
“Our policies focus on supporting Cubans, instead of hurting them,” Obama said while visiting Havana in March 2016. “That’s why we’re encouraging travel — which will build bridges between our people.”
“Those years when Americans were coming here were the best for the private sector. Everyone was doing well, from the taxi drivers to the peanut vendors.”
Under the Obama-led opening, a whirlwind of U.S. business activity swept through Cuba.
Google partnered with Cuba’s communications company to install servers throughout the island. Tens of thousands of Cubans listed their bed and breakfasts with AirBnB. Marriott opened the first hotel with a U.S. brand in Cuba since 1959. And the Fast and Furious franchise filmed a high-speed race through the streets of Havana.
U.S. commercial airlines established regular flights to the island, and the cruise ship companies began bringing boatloads of U.S. visitors to Cuban cities.
“Those years when Americans were coming here were the best for the private sector,” says Havana chauffeur David Sarzo, his eyes lighting up. “Everyone was doing well, from the taxi drivers to the peanut vendors.”
The rapprochement with Cuba, including the talks about the FCSC claims, came to an end soon after Trump took office.
In June 2017, Trump announced the dismantling of Obama’s Cuba policy at a rally in Miami.
“A free Cuba is what we will soon achieve,” declared Trump to the applause of Cuba policy hardliners, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), whom Trump referred to as his “friend” just a year after lampooning him as “Little Marco” during their 2016 primary battle.
Trump would go on to unleash a slew of sanctions on Cuba aimed at shattering the island’s economy, a policy that Rubio claims to have “directly designed.”
But for nearly two years, Trump didn’t touch Title III.
“I used to tell my clients not to worry about Title III,” Muse says. “It’s been dormant for 23 years. If Bush didn’t activate Title III, nobody is going to do it.”
Billboards and Backchannels
After Trump’s election, Mickael Behn joined forces with Javier García-Bengochea to lobby for Title III’s implementation.
“Mickael and I basically became equal partners,” says García-Bengochea, who had inherited an FCSC-certified claim from his cousin on a company that had held a concession to operate the Santiago de Cuba docks. “We made decisions jointly, pooled resources, split expenses, and planned strategies together.”
García-Bengochea had been leading a self-described “crusade” for Title III’s activation since 2009, when he says he began advocating for his cousin’s claim with the help of lobbyists at the D.C.-based Cormac Group.
“They took me around Washington to meet the players, knowing there would be no result from that, other than when the Cuba thing hits the fan, they would know who I am,” García-Bengochea says.
García-Bengochea grew up in Gainesville after his parents relocated to the United States in 1960 when he was one year old.
“We lost everything,” he says, including a house in Cuba in the upscale neighborhood of Miramar, a ranch north of Santiago, a 124-acre dairy farm west of Havana, a brewery co-founded by his grandfather (who was also an executive at Bacardi), and a variety of other investments.
Until Trump’s election, García-Bengochea says he was one of the only people lobbying on the Cuba property claims issue, which needed “a champion” to fight on behalf of Cuban Americans and other U.S. nationals who had had property expropriated in Cuba.
García-Bengochea insists his efforts to seek compensation for his family’s and other expropriated properties were not motivated by the promise of material gain, but represented a “quest” for justice that ultimately would benefit people in Cuba by resolving property title disputes.
“Cuba has no future until it settles the property issue,” he says. “I’m very sympathetic with the Cuban people. What I’m trying to do is clear a path for them so that when they start a business, they have a legal framework.”
García-Bengochea says his efforts started to take gain traction when Behn came on board alongside a Kentucky-based banker who was hired in 2011 by Aphra Behn, Behn’s mother, to manage their family trust as well as the affairs of Havana Docks.
Emails disclosed in the Havana Docks lawsuit reveal that throughout 2018 García-Bengochea and Behn pushed for Title III’s implementation with the help of former diplomat Otto Reich and Cormac Group lobbyists Jonathan Slade and José Cárdenas. All three were hired “as a package,” according to Behn.
“The most important person in that group was Reich,” García-Bengochea says.
Reich previously worked in the administrations of presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. He became embroiled in controversy during the Iran-Contra scandal, which exposed how Reagan administration officials secretly sold arms to Iran to fund the right-wing rebel group known as the Contras, who were accused by human rights organizations of atrocities against civilians in Nicaragua. The U.S comptroller general concluded in a letter to two congressional committees that Reich had overseen “prohibited, covert propaganda activities designed to influence the media and the public” in support of the Contras while he was running the State Department’s now defunct Office for Public Diplomacy.
Reich was not charged with a crime and denies wrongdoing. He has since worked as a lobbyist and consultant, in addition to a brief stint as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.
Reich, who was born in Cuba and left with his family shortly after the revolution, says he has advocated for Title III since the 1990s.
“I intensely dislike people who want to do business with the Cuban regime,” says Reich. “My grandparents were killed by the Nazis. And frankly, I consider it the moral equivalent.”
Did Sosthenes Behn’s history of doing business in Nazi Germany make Reich and his Cormac Group associates think twice about working for Behn’s great-grandson?
“It didn’t endear us to him,” Reich claims. “And I remember Jonathan Slade, who’s Jewish, he wasn’t sure he wanted to take on this client because of that. But other people said: Are you going to blame [Mickael Behn] for his grandfather’s sins? So I guess he decided to go ahead and take the client, and me too.”
Reich recommended a publicity campaign linking tourism in Cuba to support for Cuba’s military, suggesting they “juxtapose cruise ships with photos of protesters…being beaten.”
Behn would later propose publicly attacking the cruise ship companies and spreading rumors of legal actions against the U.S. Treasury Department.
“Even if that isn’t the case, it will get media attention,” Behn wrote to Reich and García-Bengochea.
In addition to their D.C.-based lobbying efforts, García-Bengochea and Behn collaborated with Cuban-American conservative groups in Miami such as the Cuban Democratic Directorate, which ran radio ads and put up billboards discouraging people from taking cruises to Cuba.
Since 2016, the Directorate has received more than $3 million in U.S. federally funded grants to “promote freedom of information” in Cuba. The organization is not well known on the island, but it is prominent in Miami, where its national secretary, Orlando Gutiérrez-Boronat, makes routine media appearances and is a fixture at pro-embargo events.
Gutiérrez-Boronat, who has called for a military intervention in Cuba, took credit for the billboard campaign, but it was funded by Behn and García-Bengochea.
In a May 2018 email, García-Bengochea wrote to Behn that Gutiérrez-Boronat “readily recognizes that we’re funding this campaign and is willing to do what we want.”
“We made it look ugly for [the cruise ship companies] from a PR standpoint,” says García-Bengochea. “These were synergistic efforts, for us to be pushing the backchannels on the one hand, and to have the same people we’re influencing see the billboards and reading the newspaper.”
In June 2018, García-Bengochea and Behn participated in a press conference with Gutiérrez-Boronat at the Brigade 2506 Museum and Library, a Miami building dedicated to remembering participants in the Bay of Pigs invasion. The place was decorated with a banner emblazoned with the same design as the billboards.
A year later, all three stood outside the federal courthouse after the first Title III lawsuits were filed as Behn thanked “the Cuban exile community.”
Neither Behn nor Gutiérrez-Boronat responded to requests for an interview. Behn’s attorney, Roberto Martinez, declined to comment on the record.
Causing a Chill in Cuba
In 2018, the Trump administration began tightening the screws on Cuba after the appointment of neoconservative John Bolton as National Security Advisor and Cuban-American hardliner Mauricio Claver-Carone as director of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council. Bolton and Claver-Carone delivered a raft of punishing sanctions on Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, which Bolton dubbed the “Troika of Tyranny.”
“The game changed when Bolton got named as the National Security Advisor,” García-Bengochea says.
In addition to their ideological affinities, Bolton and Reich had known each other since the 1980s when they worked together at USAID.
For his part, García-Bengochea says he had a “personal relationship” with Bolton, who had once solicited money from him for an “anti-Iran PAC.” But García-Bengochea says he relied on Reich to communicate with the White House.
Reich brushed off the idea that he played a central role in getting Title III implemented.
“John Bolton and Mauricio both felt the same way that I did,” Reich says. “They did not need any lobbying by me or anybody else.”
Nonetheless, Reich made his impact felt on the Trump administration in at least one crucial way.
“I wouldn’t have known [Claver-Carone’s] name if Otto hadn’t recommended him,” says Bolton, who brought on Claver-Carone as the top official for Latin America policy at the National Security Council in September 2018. “I trusted Otto’s judgment.”
In the early 2000s, Claver-Carone had helped reinvigorate the Cuban-American lobby, seeking to persuade legislators to flip their votes on measures to ease sanctions on Cuba with the help of campaign contributions through his U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC.
“We needed to do something that nobody expected. Title III was going to send a message…”
Working directly under Bolton, Claver-Carone no longer had to lobby policymakers – he became the policymaker himself, not just for Cuba but for the entire hemisphere.
“There were two things that needed to be done to show the president was serious,” Claver-Carone says. “One with Venezuela and one with Cuba, and they had to be done right away.”
With Bolton’s backing, Claver-Carone says his first orders of business were imposing sanctions on PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, and implementing Title III.
“We needed to do something that nobody expected,” Claver-Carone recounts. “Title III was going to send a message to the Cuban government that this president is a disrupter, and you don’t know what he’s going to do.”
Title III’s implementation was also intended to stifle investment in Cuba.
“It was going to cause a chill,” Claver-Carone says. “It sent an important message to foreign companies and U.S. companies that you’re not going to get away with this stuff anymore.”
Trump Gets on Board
Even with Claver-Carone and Bolton pushing from inside the White House, there was no guarantee that Trump would sign off on Title III.
The provision was originally aimed at foreign entities, but since Obama’s détente with Cuba, U.S.-based companies doing business on the island, some with ties to Trump, would be vulnerable to Title III lawsuits.
Before becoming president, Trump himself had considered investing in Cuba. Executives from his company traveled multiple times to Cuba from 1998 until 2015, according to reports from Newsweek and Bloomberg. The Trump brand name was trademarked for hotels, casinos, beauty contests, television programs, and golf courses in a 2009 report published by the Cuban government’s Office of Industrial Property.
In March 2016, Trump said he would be interested in opening a hotel in Cuba “at the right time,” and he appeared amenable to Obama’s policy of engagement.
“I’m okay with the Cuba situation, but I want to tell you, they should be making a good deal,” Trump told campaign donors at his Mar-a-Lago resort.
Trump did an about-face on Cuba policy shortly before the election, but he maintained long-standing connections to the cruise ship companies taking U.S. visitors to the island.
In 2018 and 2019, Carnival Corporation paid over a million dollars to lobbyists with close ties to Trump, including top Trump fundraiser Brian Ballard, former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who defended Trump during his impeachment trial, and Bondi’s sister-in-law, Tandy Bondi.
“There was a sustained lobbying effort from these [cruise ship company] executives who wanted to do business in Cuba,” says Claver-Carone.
In late March 2019, Carnival chairman Micky Arison sent a message to Trump, asking to speak to him about Title III’s potential implementation, which would subject his company to “$600 million in legal exposure.”
“Try calling a congressman to get a meeting. The likelihood is very low you’ll get it. You have to pay for the access.”
Arison’s appeal may have come too late as Behn and García-Bengochea had already spent months lobbying via influential politicians with a direct line to the president.
For 15 years, García-Bengochea had given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic and Republican politicians, including Rubio and Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-FL), both of whom played key roles in pushing Trump to ratchet up the U.S. government’s economic war on Cuba.
“Trump deferred to Mario and Marco on all things Cuba,” García-Bengochea says.
In addition to his contributions to legislators, García-Bengochea gave $35,000 to Claver-Carone’s U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC from 2010 until 2016.
“If you want to get access to politicians, you need to make contributions,” García-Bengochea says. “And to get access to that access, you need to go through lobbyists. Try calling a congressman to get a meeting. The likelihood is very low you’ll get it. You have to pay for the access.”
According to a court document submitted as evidence, in an August 2018 meeting at the Cormac Group, García-Bengochea, Reich, Slade, and Cárdenas planned a series of visits with some of Florida’s most prominent Republican politicians.
The list included Díaz-Balart, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), Rep. John Rutherford (R-FL), and Ron DeSantis (who was serving as a state representative prior to his governorship), along with Republican U.S. Senate Leader Mitch McConnell from Kentucky. In addition, “$10k coffees” were programmed with Rubio “to ensure [his] commitment” and with then-Florida governor and current Sen. Rick Scott “to let him meet and get to know us and our cause personally.”
After DeSantis was elected governor, Rubio, Díaz-Balart, DeSantis, and Scott privately urged the administration to implement Title III, according to Bolton.
“They had a meeting with the president,” Bolton says. “Hearing from the four of them — the new governor, the two senators from the state, from Díaz-Balart — was a pretty strong indication that we would get support for Title III.”
According to Claver-Carone, the backing of these Florida politicians was “fundamental” to convincing Trump to activate Title III.
“They explained to Trump in terms he could understand,” García-Bengochea says. “They told him, ‘Imagine you build a hotel [in Cuba] and the Cuban government throws you out and a Spanish company comes and starts managing your hotel and property.’ That resonated with Trump.”
On April 17, 2019, the anniversary of the Bay of Pigs Invasion, John Bolton announced the implementation of Title III.
“Americans who have had their private and hard-earned property stolen in Cuba will finally be allowed to sue,” said Bolton at an event honoring the Brigade 2506 in Miami.
The next month, Scott received donations from Behn for $2,000, from Slade for $2,000, and from Reich for $1,000.
Since 2018, García-Bengochea has given $13,100 to Rubio and $10,600 to Díaz-Balart; Slade has given $4,000 to Rubio and $1,500 to Díaz-Balart; and Reich has given $3,850 to Rubio.
García-Bengochea attributes Title III’s implementation to his and Behn’s lobbying efforts and their publicity campaign.
“We were able to muster our resources and bring them together and ultimately connect with the Trump administration to get Title III enacted,” García-Bengochea says. “Everybody who has sued [under Title III] owes us. We did this for them, and they know it.”
Claver-Carone insists that the push to implement Title III came from within the White House at the National Security Council.
“Ambassador Bolton did not need any convincing,” Claver-Carone says.
Still, Claver-Carone attributes Trump’s hardline Cuba policy to a coordinated effort involving influential Cuban Americans and Florida politicians.
“Rubio, Díaz-Balart, myself, Otto — we’re all on the same page,” says Claver-Carone. “We’re all friends and we all talk to each other and to non-Cuban Americans like Gov. DeSantis and Sen. Scott and Ambassador Bolton. We’re a close-knit community. We help each other. If Marco ran into an obstacle he couldn’t surmount, I would help him, and Marco would help me. We have been successful in policy goals because we did it as a team.”
Title III’s activation led to dozens of lawsuits against companies in countries across the globe. More than two dozen U.S. companies have been targeted, including Amazon, Expedia, Mastercard, and American Airlines, among others.
Initially, legal experts delivered a bleak forecast for the lawsuits.
“It was not the intention of the Helms-Burton law to go after American companies with legal business in Cuba,” George Fowler, an attorney advising Carnival and general counsel of the Cuban American National Foundation, told El Nuevo Herald. “They can try it, but I’ve been here for 40 years, and I tell them: good luck.”
Fowler’s prediction proved right — at first. In the last three years, at least one Title III case is reported to have settled, but the vast majority of others have dragged on or have been dismissed, including García-Bengochea’s lawsuit against the cruise lines.
“The objective is not necessarily to win in court, but sometimes just to create a lot of noise and scare investors away [from Cuba],” Biniowsky says. “No matter what due diligence you do, you’re still not sure some Cuban exile will jump out of the woodwork and sue you in a Miami court saying some property you’re using in Cuba belongs to their uncle.”
Mickael Behn’s case was stronger than others, but still faced significant challenges.
Since Title III barred lawsuits against companies engaged in lawful travel to Cuba, the cruise lines argued they could not be liable for activities that President Obama himself had blessed.
In addition, they contended that Havana Docks never owned the piers or the buildings the company built on them. A 1920 decree extending Havana Docks’ concession to operate a cargo business on the piers stipulates that the company was obligated to return the property to the Cuban government in 2004, more than a decade before the cruise ships began bringing U.S. visitors to Havana.
In addition, the lease Havana Docks held over the port was non-exclusive, according to Ambar Díaz, a maritime law specialist based in Miami who was hired by the cruise ship companies.
Havana Docks’ right to operate its cargo business “had nothing to do with the Cuban government’s rights to allow passenger ships to moor at the piers for the transportation of passengers,” wrote Díaz in a 36-page report.
Judge Bloom, however, rejected the arguments about Havana Docks’ limited lease, appealing to language in the International Claims Settlement Act that states that decisions by the FCSC “shall be final and conclusive on all questions of law and fact, and shall not be subject to review…by any court.”
Bloom also held that the cruise ship companies had violated U.S. regulations by allowing their passengers to engage in tourism.
Even when the passengers spent all day in permitted activities such as interacting with local artists in Old Havana or visiting a community project in a working-class neighborhood, if they later capped off their day by watching a show at the Tropicana Cabaret, they would be breaking the law.
Bloom wrote that evening excursions violated U.S. regulations because they were “‘tourist activities,’ irrespective of whether daytime activities were not.”
Who Pays the Price?
While Behn and the other Havana Docks shareholders await an enormous windfall, the Cuban people are facing a dire economic crisis that has driven over 300,000 people to migrate to the United States in the last two years.
Old Havana was bustling with U.S. visitors six years ago. Now, it’s hard to find one. Bed and breakfasts have shuttered, many restaurants are empty, and the cruise ship terminal is usually desolate.
In a co-authored 2019 Op-Ed, Behn and García-Bengochea attacked Obama’s policy of engagement with Cuba, calling his administration “feckless and perverted” and accusing the cruise liners of violating U.S. law to profit from Cuban “slave labor.”
Many private sector workers in Cuba have a different recollection of events.
“The Obama years were really good for us,” says Víctor Estévez, a waiter trying to attract clients outside a restaurant in Old Havana.
It’s not just Cuba’s retail sector that has been affected by Title III and the ramping up of U.S. sanctions.
Biniowsky had a thriving law practice in Havana advising dozens of companies interested in investing in Cuba.
Two years ago, he relocated to Vancouver, Canada.
“I lost almost all my clients,” Biniowsky says. “I lost my American clients when it became clear Trump cut a deal with Marco Rubio. And then I lost the non-American clients, the Canadians and Europeans, with the implementation of Title III. They saw the economic potential of the island, but they couldn’t take the risk.”
“People had faith that Biden would change things…but it never ended up happening,”
Nine days before leaving office, Trump delivered a final knockout blow to Cuba, putting it on the State Sponsors of Terrorism List (despite consensus among U.S. intelligence agencies that Cuba does not sponsor terrorism). The designation has further dissuaded foreign companies and banks from engaging with Cuba.
Cut off from international investment and credit, Cuba was ill-prepared to face the economic impacts of COVID and the Russia-Ukraine war. The island has been ravaged by shortages of food, medicine, fuel and spare parts for its aging energy infrastructure.
“Cuba desperately needs capital investment, and I had a long list of companies that wanted to invest in food production, tourism, infrastructure, airports, transportation,” Biniowsky says. “All this investment would have had an enormously positive impact on the Cuban economy and the economic well-being of the Cuban people.”
In 2020, Biden campaigned on a “new Cuba policy.” But two years into his presidency, Biden’s approach to Cuba has remained largely indistinguishable from his predecessor’s.
“People had faith that Biden would change things because he was supported by Obama, but it never ended up happening,” laments Sarzo, the Havana taxi driver. “Biden has maintained Trump’s policy, with the cruise ships and with everything else.”
Biden has reopened the consulate and lifted some restrictions on travel and remittances, but he has left some of the harshest sanctions in place, including Title III and the designation of Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.
“The Biden administration is not only showing little interest in Cuba, it’s showing that it doesn’t know very much about Cuba,” Muse says. “They fundamentally don’t care. I don’t think there is any active consideration of suspending Title III.”
Even if Biden suspends Title III, the lawsuits filed under the provision cannot be retroactively affected.
Last November, García-Bengochea, whose case had been dismissed in 2020 by a federal judge in Miami, lost in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that he had acquired the property through inheritance after a 1996 deadline.
Meanwhile, all four cruise ship companies have appealed Judge Bloom’s ruling to the 11th Circuit.
Whatever the sum ultimately paid by the cruise ship companies, the Cuban people are already paying a heavy price.
“We have so many problems here because of the blockade,” says Estévez, referring to the web of U.S. sanctions that cuts the island off from the rest of the world. “U.S. policy toward Cuba right now is helping just a handful of people who are profiting from it.”
Reed Lindsay and Daniel Montero are journalists with Belly of the Beast, an award-winning U.S.-based media outlet that covers U.S.-Cuba relations. Its documentaries, video reports, and other work can be followed on YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.