WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump will open the way for lawsuits in US courts over property confiscated by Cuba, enforcing a controversial law that angered European allies and could rattle the island's economy, after more than two decades of delay.
Ever since Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act in 1996, US presidents starting with Bill Clinton have used their power to suspend the key provision every six months, mindful of the international consequences.
Those once-routine waivers are now over.
A senior administration official said National Security Advisor John Bolton will formally unveil the shift Wednesday in a speech in Miami in which he will also outline actions on Venezuela and Nicaragua, two other countries in Latin America with leftist governments opposed by Trump.
Bolton "will announce the enforcement of Title III of the Helms-Burton Act," the official said.
The hawkish adviser will be speaking to veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the failed CIA-backed attempt by Cuban exiles to depose Fidel Castro's communist regime in 1961.
The European Union was swift in condemning the move.
"This will create even more confusion for foreign investments that are helping create jobs and prosperity in Cuba," EU envoy to Havana Alberto Navarro told reporters.
With the change, Cuban exiles will be allowed to head to US courts to sue both private companies and the Havana government for profiting from properties nationalized after Fidel Castro's 1959 communist revolution.
While US courts cannot directly enforce decisions inside Cuba, the Helms-Burton Act is meant to send a chilling message to foreign investors - including Americans - who may increasingly decide to exit or steer clear of the island.
When it was initially passed, the law had been strongly opposed by the European Union, which worries about legal repercussions for its businesses in the United States. With some 200,000 potential lawsuits in the making, US officials feared the law would flood the World Trade Organisation with complaints.
A related provision restricts entry into the United States of anyone who is connected to an unresolved claim in Cuba over confiscated property.
RASH OF LAWSUITS EXPECTED
Republican lawmakers who have long pushed for tough action on Cuba have rejoiced at the Trump administration's signals since January that it was moving to fully enforce the Helms-Burton Act.
"Years of consecutive extensions may have lulled some into a false sense of impunity," said Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican of Cuban descent.
"Yet now companies which willingly entangle themselves in partnerships with the anti-American, illegitimate and oppressive regime in Cuba are on notice that they will be held responsible for their part in callously benefiting from the extensive losses suffered by victims of the regime," he said in a recent statement.
Spanish Economy Minister renewed the European concerns on Saturday during a visit to Washington for IMF and World Bank meetings, saying Spain has "clearly expressed its rejection" of Helms-Burton.
The implementation "would be clearly detrimental to the smooth running of international business," she told reporters.
Among potential targets of the law are the Hotel Habana Libre, the former Hilton which is now run by Spain's Melia chain.
The US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a New York-based group that supports commercial ties between the longtime adversaries, said that companies with combined revenues of US$678 billion could be targeted in Helms-Burton lawsuits.
According to the group, companies that have been mentioned for potential lawsuits include major international airlines, including US-based American, Delta and United, hotels chains such as Marriott and Accor and companies as diverse of French liquor maker Pernod Ricard and Chinese telecom giant Huawei.
DRASTIC TURN IN US POLICY
Trump's move marks a drastic shift from his predecessor Barack Obama, who had normalized relations with Cuba, saying that a half-century of US efforts to topple the regime had failed.
Obama eased travel restrictions for Americans and himself visited Cuba, signaling to many US businesses that the time had come to return to the island.
Trump has also been pushing for the ouster of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, a leftist firebrand who presides over a crumbling economy that has sparked a massive exodus.
It is the latest time that Trump has moved ahead with a policy long seen as too disruptive. In 2017, he moved the US embassy in Israel to bitterly divided Jerusalem, similarly ending years of waivers of a US law.
The Helms-Burton Law is named for far-right Republican senator Jesse Helms and congressman Dan Burton. They drafted the law passed by Congress after Cuba shot down two aircraft flown by exiled activists, putting an end to tentative efforts by Clinton to try to repair relations.