Four Florida-based cruise lines that sailed to Cuba between 2015 and 2019 have just been ordered by a federal court judge to pay over $400 million in damages to Havana Docks Corporation, an American company that retains holds a concession dating to 1934 to pier operations in Havana’s harbor, which were criminally expropriated by Fidel Castro in 1960. It becomes the first ruling of its kind under legislation that penalizes “trafficking in stolen property” within Cuba.
The terminology may seem a bit harsh and somewhat confusing, alluding to the previously granted rights to dock operations as “property”, which was “stolen” in the sense that Havana Docks Corp. was unlawfully dispossessed of those rights by the communist Cuban regime, but technically still retains the commission to conduct its business there.
The landmark decision, made on Friday by U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom, follows her March 2022 judgment that the four cruise companies—Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and MSC SA—had committed “trafficking acts”. This refers to their having engaged in “prohibited tourism” by conveying U.S. passengers to Cuba and utilizing the port facilities that Castro had commandeered from U.S.-owned Havana Docks Corp. without its consent or compensation decades ago. Havana Docks’ property claim was certified by the U.S. Justice Department’s Foreign Claims Settlement Commission back in 1971.
Last week’s ruling dictates that the four cruise lines, which are registered outside the U.S., but which all operate primarily out of Florida, must pay Havana Docks a total of $439 in fines, plus attorney fees and costs. This multimillion-dollar fee is comprised of the lost-property amount originally claimed, plus decades of simple interest. On top of which, the ‘Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act’ of 1996 (a.k.a. Helms-Burton Act), which prohibits the use of property illegally confiscated by Cuba’s communist government, allows the court to triple the damages awarded to the plaintiff.
Defendants’ offenses in these cases have been established, and the Court found that Defendants derived significant amounts of revenue — in the hundreds of millions of dollars each — from their wrongful trafficking activities, and to Plaintiff’s detriment,” the judge wrote, according to the Miami Herald. “A lower award as Defendants suggest would not effectively serve a deterrent purpose, since a lesser award could conceivably be considered merely a cost of doing business.”
Reportedly, hundreds of court documents were presented proving that the four cruise lines welcomed travelers through the port in Havana and offered offshore excursions to the Tropicana cabaret, the beach, cocktail-making lessons and other activities that don’t truly fit the description of “educational” travel and the facilitation of “people to people” contacts, which was the government-sanctioned category under which Americans could visit Cuba at the time. The records show that these cruise lines pulled in revenues of at least $1.1 billion and paid Cuban government entities $138 million by engaging in these activities.
Carnival spokesperson Jody Venturoni told the Miami Herald that, despite the ruling, her company doesn’t believe it was in the wrong. “Carnival Corporation engaged in lawful travel explicitly licensed, authorized and encouraged by the U.S. government,” she said. “We strongly disagree with both the ruling and judgment, and plan to appeal these decisions.”
“This is a very important ruling by Judge Bloom,” said Bob Martinez, who led Havana Docks’ legal defense team at the Colson Hicks Eidson law firm. “The commercial use of confiscated property in Cuba in violation of U.S. law carries clearly detailed, and well-known and publicized legal consequences. After decades of pursuing its legal rights, Havana Docks is one step closer to justice. Havana Docks appreciates Judge Bloom’s thorough and careful review of the facts and law.”
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