A federal judge in Miami this week ruled that four major cruise lines are liable for using port facilities that were expropriated after the Cuban revolution. In her 168-page ruling, Judge Beth Bloom wrote that the cruise ship companies—Carnival, Norwegian, MSC Cruises and Royal Caribbean—had engaged in “trafficking activities” by porting in Havana and bringing hundreds of thousands of passengers to tour the city.
“By using the [Havana] Terminal and one of its piers in various ways, Carnival, MSC SA, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian committed trafficking acts,” U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom concluded, according to the Miami Herald.
The ruling sets the stage for the cruise lines to potentially pay millions of dollars in restitution to a U.S. company called Havana Docks, which owned the concession to operate the port of Havana at the time of the Cuban revolution. In October 1960, Fidel Castro terminated the concession, and nationalized the holdings of the company, making them property of the state. The same thing was done to Cuba’s cigar industry.
In 2019, Havana Docks sued the four cruise lines, using “Title III,” a controversial clause of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act. Passed in 1996. the law states that “any person that . . . traffics in property which was confiscated by the Cuban Government on or after January 1, 1959, shall be liable to any United States national who owns the claim to such property for money damages.” Since the clause threatened to unleash hundreds of lawsuits against both U.S. and foreign companies, offending allies who have normal economic relations with Cuba, for more than 20 years U.S. presidents waived implementation of that section of the Libertad Act. In 2019, however, President Trump decided to implement the Title III provision, allowing the suit by Havana Docks seeking damages to be filed.
In their defense, the cruise companies cited an exemption in the 1996 Libertad Act that allows “transactions and uses of property” in the use of “lawful travel to Cuba.” Their tours to Cuba, according to court submissions, constituted “lawful travel” because they had been explicitly “licensed, authorized and encouraged by the U.S. government” during the Obama administration—and even the Trump administration until 2019—as part of the normalization of bilateral relations.
But Judge Bloom rejected those arguments, ruling that the cruise lines had engaged in “impermissible travel” and “tourist activities” prohibited by embargo restrictions. Among the activities she cited that did not meet the criteria for lawful travel were excursions to cigar and rum bars, a trip to Ernest Hemingway’s home, the “Explore Havana by American Classic Car” tours, visits to the popular museum of Bellas Artes and evenings at Havana’s historic nightclub, The Tropicana Cabaret.
“[It] is a stretch of the people-to-people travel regulation,” Judge Bloom wrote in her ruling, “to encompass tourist activities: visiting landmarks, watching shows, drinking rum, smoking Cuban cigars, buying souvenirs, and swimming in natural pools.”
Unless a settlement takes place, a Miami jury will hear evidence in the case in May, and determine the level of compensation the companies must pay for facilitating travel to Cuba.