Mafia hotels, half of Cienfuegos, and other unusual claims against Cuba under Helms-Burton
By Sergio Alejandro Gómez, for CubaDebate
Although doomed to failure, Helms-Burton’s objectives have always been clear: asphyxiate the Cuban economy and topple the Cuban revolution by causing hunger and desperation among its people. Those who sponsored and drafted the law made no effort to conceal them.
Nevertheless, 23 years after its enactment, Helms-Burton’s benefits for U.S. citizens remain a mystery, even for the majority of the Cuban community residing there who support normalized relations with their country of origin.
Who are Helms-Burton’s winners then? It’s a question that has been the subject of increased attention lately.
Just like on March 12, 1996, when President Bill Clinton signed off on Helms-Burton, magical recipes to defeat socialism in Cuba are once again on sale, this time by those advising the current Republican administration on Latin America.
The partial activation of Title III, the most polarizing of the four titles within the legislation – along with the threat to fully apply it – is now supposed to suddenly set off an economic and political crisis in Cuba that would erase any vestige of national sovereignty and open the doors to bring back the country’s previous owners.
Even if it has not achieved its purposes, nor offered the least glimmer of hope for achieving them, Helms-Burton is one of the greatest obstacles preventing halfway civilized relations between Havana and Washington.
In addition to being illegal, interventionist, in violation of international law and the sovereignty of third countries, and contradicting both the letter and spirit of the U.S. Constitution, the law reduces the power of any White House to direct foreign policy toward Cuba.
During the last two years of the Barack Obama administration, the abilities of a president to modify the blockade against Cuba were put to the test.
Although the Democrat president might have gone much further, given the political will to do so, it’s no less true that the codification of Helms-Burton was a brake on his attempt to move toward normalization with Havana.
President Clinton understood this reality too late. “Approving the law was a good thing during an election year in Florida, but it undermined any opportunity that might have existed during a second term to lift the embargo in response to positive changes within Cuba,” he wrote in his memoirs.
To understand then, who benefits from Helms-Burton, one must return to its origins and the handful of people who, with shadowy economic interests, sponsored and financed the legislation.
The Bacardi Law: The “Cuban” rum that isn’t made in Cuba
At the beginning of 2016, Cuba won a long court battle in the United States against the Bacardi corporation over the rights to the Havana Club brand. The U.S. Office of Patents and Trademarks recognized Cubaexport as the legitimate international representative for the famous rum.
The confrontation between Havana and Bacardí, however, goes back to the triumphant revolution, when its distilleries and warehouses were nationalized to benefit the Cuban majority. The former owners carried on with their business in Bermuda, Mexico and Puerto Rico, eventually becoming global leaders in the liquor business.
But Bacardí never gave up on its attempts to recover its Cuban “empire,” regardless of the methods or cost. Otto Reich and Roger Noriega, two of the CIA’s agents for Latin America and with strong ties to Bacardí, pitched in during 1994, drafting and lobbying Helms-Burton in order to defend the company’s objectives
There were differences among the law’s multiple sponsors, however. Those on the side of the front-men for the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship and the mafia within the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) wanted to see the nationalized properties put up for auction, to pay any claimants in cash. The Bacardí team on the other hand preferred to have the properties returned in whole.
Finally, Bacardí was the winner and it’s not for nothing that some call Helms-Burton The Bacardí Law.
“CANF did a lot of lobbying but the real drafter of Helms-Burton was the Bacardí company, and the one who put up the money, the vast majority of the money, was Bacardí,” said Colombian journalist Hernando Calvo Ospina, who wrote a book about the business.
Nicolas Gutierrez, the great-grandson of the owner of Cienfuegos
Nicolas (Nick) Gutierrez, the president of the so-called “Association of Cuban Landowners in exile,” was another attorney who pitched in with the drafting of Helms-Burton alongside Bacardí.
But Gutierrez had his own interests, as the great grandson of a businessman from Spain, Nicolas Castaño Capetillo, who at the beginning of the 20th century was considered the richest man in Cienfuegos and one of the wealthiest in all of Cuba.
The Gutierrez family, which had important ties to Batista, claims the rights to two sugar mills, cattle ranches, a bank and an insurance company, among other assets.
But if you pay attention to the statements from the president of the “Association of Cuban Landowners in exile”, his rights extend to half of the city of Cienfuegos.
Gutierrez also has to his credit the achievement of having recommended to George W. Bush the idea of limiting visits by Cuban Americans to their country of origin, to once every three years.
A billion dollars for the man who killed Che Guevara
Gustavo Villoldo, one of the CIA agents who directed the capture and murder of Che Guevara in Bolivia, is another person with an interest in activating Helms-Burton’s Title III.
His father, also named Gustavo, came from a well-off family. He studied in the United States, graduated as a lawyer and attended the Wharton Business School. He returned to Cuba where he worked briefly as a lawyer, before he obtained a General Motors franchise and dealership.
The dealership grew quickly and just before the Revolution, had annual sales of almost $15 million dollars, according to statements from the CIA agent himself, who claims responsibility for burying Che and his guerrilla comrades.
Villodo Jr. has already taken his case to the U.S. courts in a bizarre claim: he accused Fidel and Che of causing his father’s suicide, which occurred after he left Cuba.
At the trial without a defendant, held in the partial biosphere of Miami-Dade, Judge Peter Adrien granted Villoldo more than a billion dollars in “compensation” for the loss of his father.
Since Cuba is not inclined to pay a penny and there are no further frozen Cuban funds or businesses in the United States to expropriate, the judgment is unrecoverable. Thus, the hopes for an activated Title III with extra-territorial reach.
Neither Bacardi’s owners, nor the wealthy family of Nicolas Gutierrez, nor Gustavo Villodo Sr. were U.S. citizens at the time Cuba exercised its sovereignty in the nationalization of their properties.
In violation of international law and U.S. legal practice, Title III of Helms-Burton opens the door for Cubans who later became U.S. citizens to file claims. According to experts like the attorney Rodolfo Dávalos and Professor Olga Miranda (now deceased), the inclusion of Cuban Americans has no legal validity whatsoever, and constitutes an additional obstacle to resolving the claims of U.S. businesses nationalized by the Cuban revolution.
Some five thousand claims for property nationalized at that time were accepted by the U.S. Federal Claims Service Commission. Cuba has always been willing to discuss the claims and find a solution to these demands, under equal conditions, with respect for its sovereignty and in accordance with international practice. Havana reached agreements and paid compensation for nationalized businesses pertaining to the United Kingdom, Canada, Italy, France, Switzerland and Spain. Nevertheless, the United States opted for a blockaded policy that prevented its businesses from recovering the debt, something that could have been completed as soon as 1980.
Cuban law established that a percentage of the U.S. sugar quota would be dedicated to paying for the expropriated properties.
The mafia wants to return to Havana
There are property owners whose claims were not accepted by the FCSC. These are also looking to Title III to shelter their demands.
Although it seems like a joke, this is the case of the family of the American gangster Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano’s right-hand, who turned the Sicilian mafia of New York into an international business.
Meyer Lansky owned the Hotel Riviera in Havana, and the casino within it. Now the mobster’s daughter and grandson are seeking $8 million for their “loss.”
Until now, their claim has been ignored by U.S. authorities.
Cuba draws a clear distinction between the nationalizations of legitimate businesses and companies, carried out as a sovereign decision and to the benefit of the majority of its people, and the confiscations of properties illicitly obtained by front-men for the dictatorship, torturers, mobsters and criminals.
These are precisely the people who dream of returning to Cuba, aided by Helms-Burton, and they are the sole beneficiaries of a law that today marks its 23rd anniversary of frustration.
This article by Sergio Alejandro Gómez was originally published on the CubaDebate website and has been translated by Jorge Delacruz for Cuba Business Report.