MIAMI (AP) - A federal judge in Miami said in a ruling that four of the largest cruise companies engaged in tourism to Cuba that was barred by U.S. law between 2015 and 2019.
U.S. Judge Beth Bloom said in Monday’s ruling that Carnival, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean and MSC Cruises must compensate the descendants of a U.S. businessman for using a Havana terminal that was confiscated after the Cuban revolution for those trips made outside the travel categories allowed by law.
After former President Barack Obama’s detente with the island, cruise companies were issued licenses by the U.S. Treasury Department to carry American passengers to Cuba. But that did not mean people could travel for tourism, the judge said.
"The fact that OFAC (The Office of Foreign Assets Control) promulgated licenses for traveling to Cuba, and executive branch officials, including the president, encouraged defendants to do so, does not automatically immunize defendants from liability if they engaged in statutorily prohibited tourism," Bloom wrote.
She said in her decision that the matter could proceed to trial to decide on monetary damages.
Bloom said cruise ships were taking passengers outside the travel categories allowed by law. The 169-page court document shows the four cruise lines also gave millionaire contracts to various Cuban government agencies to use the terminal and for tours. The document also revealed the companies made more than $1.1 billion in revenue from booking cruises with stops in Cuba.
Cruise travelers went on excursions to nightclubs, landmarks, rivers and beaches when they began traveling to Cuba in 2016. That was before then-President Donald Trump announced restrictions in June 2019, prompting cruise lines to hastily drop Cuba stops and reroute ships on the go.
A month before those restrictions were announced, the Trump administration decided to activate a provision of the U.S. embargo on the island that allowed Americans to sue almost any company that engages in commercial activity or benefits from property confiscated by Cuba’s government.
Every president had suspended what is known as Title III of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act since the law’s passage because of objections from U.S. allies doing business in Cuba and the effect on future negotiated settlements between the U.S. and Cuba.
One of the exceptions for that law’s provision is for uses of that property for lawful travel, and Bloom said these cruises were not exempted.
The company Havana Docks is seeking about $9.2 million. The company’s president, Mickael Behn, is the grandson of William C. Behn, an American who owned three docks that were confiscated in 1960. Mickael Behn is a television executive who lives between Miami and London.
Cruise companies did not respond to a request for comment. Calls to the attorney representing Havana Docks rang unanswered.