Trump sanctions, lawsuits hit Cuba hard: It can’t even buy planes, transport minister says

HAVANA, Feb. 26th The Trump administration’s campaign of “maximum pressure” on Cuba has hit the country so hard, that foreign companies refuse to sell planes to the island’s government and ships refuse to dock at its ports, the Cuban minister of transportation says.

In a remarkably candid appearance on Cuban television Tuesday night, Transportation Minister Eduardo Rodríguez detailed how badly the island has been affected, in an effort to explain the mounting problems facing public transport.

Over the past year, Cuba has been hit by a double whammy: U.S. sanctions to punish the island for propping up the government of Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro, and a newly strengthened federal law that has allowed Cuban-Americans whose commercial property or land was expropriated by the Castro government to sue foreign companies that use those properties in Cuba.

The U.S. sanctions have had a “real and direct effect on the transportation of passengers” and revenues in foreign currency, Rodriguez said, giving details:

A foreign company cancelled the sale of two planes to the island’s flag carrier, Cubana de Aviación.

A ship carrying oil already bought by Cuba refused to dock at any of the island’s ports, and the government had no choice but to buy the vessel.

A foreign company that had been working for two years to modernize Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport called it quits.

A foreign firm that had been modernizing the island’s ageing railway system for two years also cancelled its contract.

Cuba can’t buy planes

In October 2019, the U.S. Department of Commerce made it difficult for any company in the world to export to Cuba any products if more than 10 per cent of its parts were made in the U.S.

Citing that new rule, a company that had sold two planes destined for Cubana cancelled the transaction, Rodríguez Dávila said.

The anchor of the show, Mesa Redonda, or Round Table, complained that the new rule would prevent Cuba from buying “virtually” any aircraft, as most commercial aeroplanes contain a significant number of parts made in the U.S.

The minister went so far as to read on live TV a letter from a foreign company that cancelled its contract to modernize Havana’s main airport. The president of the company said that due to “recent events in North America” it was pulling out of the deal. The reference was to the Helms-Burton Act, the law that lets Cuban-Americans sue in U.S. courts.

Rodríguez did not identify the company. In 2018, the French construction company Bouygues Batiment International, which has built several hotels on the island, contracted to expand Havana’s international airport. A recent lawsuit in Miami federal court claims the Cuban government illegally expropriated much of the land and the facilities at the airport at the beginning of the Castro revolution and asked for damages from companies using the airport, including American Airlines.

Although the Helms-Burton law has been on the books since 1996, in May 2019 Trump authorized a part that allows those who lost property confiscated by the Castro government to file suit in federal courts against companies that “traffic with stolen property.”

Bouygues Batiment International did not respond to a request for comment.

Ships don’t want to dock in Cuban ports

As part of what it calls its “maximum pressure campaign,” the Trump administration began sanctioning vessels and companies that facilitate shipments of Venezuelan oil to the island since April last year. Two of the country’s main ports, in Havana and Santiago de Cuba, are also subject to Helms-Burton lawsuits.

“It got to the point that we had to buy a ship that was near our coasts… with our fuel inside,” Rodríguez said because “the shipowner has refused to dock.”

Other related effects on the island, he said: The suspension of U.S. cruises to Cuba, another measure taken by the U.S. government last June, has curtailed the island’s access to dollars.

Last September, Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel announced on live TV that the sanctions had cut the country’s oil supplies that month. Since then, the government has imposed austerity measures, leading to long lines at gas stations and cuts to bus and train services.

Cuba loses investor in a rail system

In the Tuesday broadcast, Rodriguez lamented that another foreign company, which had been working for two years to modernize the yards that repair and maintain the island’s ageing railways, also pulled out.

The transportation minister read the letter to the Cuban government from that company’s director too.

“Our lawyers believe that despite the changes they have made in the project to ensure its safety under the Helms-Burton Act, there are still doubts about the conditions for its application by the judges of the United States,” the letter said.

Rodriguez did not identify the company, but in 2018 the National Society of French Railways announced a 40-million-euro project to modernize two maintenance yards for locomotives in Havana and Camagüey. The French government-owned firm did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

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