Donald Trump has taken another step towards reversing Barack Obama’s historic rapprochement with Cuba with a measure that earned swift criticism from allies in Canada and Europe.
The US announced on Wednesday that it would enable lawsuits against foreign companies that use properties nationalised by the communist government after Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution.
The policy shift, which could draw hundreds of thousands of legal claims worth tens of billion of dollars, aims to put pressure on Cuba at a moment when the US is demanding an end to Havana’s support for Venezuela’s socialist president, Nicolás Maduro.
It was condemned by Cuba as “an attack on international law” and by Canada and the European Union as “regrettable”, since their companies have significant investments in hotels, distilleries, tobacco factories and other properties on the island.
Title III of the Helms-Burton Act had been fully waived by every president over the past 23 years due to concerns from the international community and fears that it could overwhelm US courts with lawsuits.
But Trump, who has made a habit of breaking from his predecessors, gave the go-ahead for it to be activated. Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, said that, for the first time, US citizens will be able to bring lawsuits against individuals trafficking in property that was confiscated by the Cuban regime.
Pompeo accused the Obama administration of playing a “game of footsy with the Castros’ junta” which did not deter it from targeting human rights activists. “Detente with the regime has failed,” the secretary told reporters.
The issue has come to a head now as the US argues that Cuba’s security and intelligence support is crucial to Maduro’s grip on power amid Venezuela’s economic and political crisis.
Pompeo added: “Cuba’s behaviour in the western hemisphere undermines the security and stability of countries throughout the region, which directly threatens United States national security interests. The Cuban regime has for years exported its tactics of intimidation, repression and violence.
“They’ve exported this to Venezuela in direct support of the former Maduro regime. Cuban military intelligence and state security services today keep Maduro in power.”
The decision represents a blow to Cuba’s efforts to draw foreign investment. The foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez, retorted on Twitter: “I strongly reject the announcement of State Secretary Pompeo. This is an attack on international law and the sovereignty of Cuba and third states. Aggressive escalation of USA against Cuba will fail.”
Numerous foreign companies have invested in Cuba since Obama eased restrictions. A joint EU-Canada statement said the US move was “regrettable” and will have an “important impact on legitimate EU and Canadian economic operators in Cuba”.
James Williams, president of the pressure group Engage Cuba said: “President Trump is doing this for one reason, and one reason only: to appease fringe hardliners in South Florida ahead of the 2020 election. The only way to get property claimants what they deserve is through diplomatic negotiations, which President Trump just threw off the table.”
On Wednesday Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, also announced a series of new sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela, including a new cap on the amount of money that families in the US can send to relatives in Cuba.
Remittances from the United States have surged since Obama started easing restrictions on them in 2009, becoming an important part of the Cuban economy and fueling the growth of the private sector by providing startup capital.
He also said the United States would also further restrict “non-family” travel by Americans to Cuba, though he offered no details.
In a speech to an association of veterans of the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, Bolton said the US was adding five names linked to Cuba’s military and intelligence services to its sanctions blacklist. “Under this administration, we don’t throw dictators lifelines,” Bolton said in Miami. “We take them away.”