Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Wednesday that the Trump administration will not suspend a previously revoked provision in a 1996 law that allows Cubans who fled Fidel Castro’s regime to sue companies that have used their former property on the island. The move marks a sharp departure from previous administrations and opens the door for a windfall of legislation against foreign firms operating in the island nation.
Pompeo said that he would not suspend the bar on litigation in the Helms-Burton Act that has been renewed by every presidential administration since Bill Clinton. The move could affect dozens of Canadian and European companies doing business in Cuba – embroiling the businesses in litigation that could cost them billions of dollars and upending relations between Washington and its traditional allies.
"Any person or company doing business in Cuba should heed this announcement," Pompeo said.
Pompeo said the administration was acting because it recognized the "reality" that the bar on lawsuits, which has been in place since 1996, had not achieved the goal of pressing Cuba to enact democratic reforms or reining in what he called its export of oppression throughout the Western Hemisphere, particularly in Venezuela.
"We see clearly that regime's repression of its own people and unrepentant exportation of tyranny in the region has only gotten worse because dictators perceive appeasement as weakness, not strength," he told reporters at the State Department.
The decision deals a severe blow to Havana's efforts to draw foreign investment to the island and comes as President Donald Trump steps up pressure to isolate embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who is holding power with help from other countries, including Cuba, China and Russia.
The announcement also comes at a moment of severe economic weakness for Cuba, which is struggling to find enough cash to import basic food and other supplies following a drop in aid from Venezuela and a string of bad years in other key economic sectors.
Pompeo’s announcement is part of a broader effort by the Trump administration to put pressure of the leftist governments in Latin America – particularly Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
National security adviser John Bolton is expected to discuss the new policy during a speech in Miami, home to thousands of exiles and immigrants from Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua – countries he has labelled as a “troika of tyranny.” The speech at the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association is to be delivered on the 58th anniversary of the United States' failed 1961 invasion of the island, an attempt to overthrow the Cuban government.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.