Andrea Zelinski
Andrea Zelinski

In my decade and half of covering politics and reading lawsuits, I had never come across a case that dealt with cruise companies. This case concerns both politics and cruise lines.

Last month, a federal judge ruled that the four largest cruise companies that carried U.S. passengers to Cuba engaged in "prohibited tourism" and "trafficked" in the port in Havana.

In the 169-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom concluded that cruises to Cuba by Carnival Corp., Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, MSC Cruises and Royal Caribbean "constituted tourist activities and not proper people-to-people activities, paying millions of dollars to the Cuban Government to engage in impermissible travel" by using the port in Havana.

This activity, she wrote, violated the Libertad Act, otherwise known as the Helms-Burton Act, which was passed in 1996 and bars tourism in the country to address "the 36 years of communist tyranny and economic mismanagement" by former president Fidel Castro's regime.

The act has long been a form of sanctions against Cuba. It dictates that Americans can only travel to Cuba if they are conducting one of a dozen categories, including family visits, educational and religious activities and providing support for the Cuban people and humanitarian projects. Travel strictly for tourist vacations is not permitted.

The case is complicated. President Barack Obama's administration encouraged and issued licenses to carry American passengers to Cuba in May of 2016, which they did under an approved "people to people" category. However, the judge ruled last month that those facts do "not automatically immunize [the defendants] from liability if they engaged in statutorily prohibited tourism."

Also according to a provision of the law, any person who "traffics in property which was confiscated by the Cuban Government on or after Jan. 1, 1959, shall be liable to any United States national who owns the claim to such property for money damages."

However, every president from 1996 until former President Donald Trump in 2019 suspended the right for victims of confiscation to bring a lawsuit.

And that's where this case comes in.

Havana Docks, which owned the cruise terminal before its 1960 confiscation by the Castro government, is seeking $9.2 million in damages.   

In June of 2019, then-president Trump announced restrictions on traveling to Cuba by cruise ship, to which cruise lines quickly acquiesced. A month earlier, his administration ended a longstanding policy to suspend the right to sue, opening the doors to lawsuits like this one. 

This isn't the first time a travel company has faced problems with operating in Cuba. Most recently in January, the U.S. resolved some $600,000 worth of Airbnb violations in Cuba. The Office of Foreign Assets Control settled with Airbnb for $91,172. It's unclear whether cruise lines will get that good of a deal.

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