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Mickael Behn isn't Cuban. Neither is his family. But their connection to Cuba dates to 1917, when his great-grandfather bought prime Havana harbor property from the Cuban government. Behn's grandfather took over the commercial business in 1947 and ran the Havana Docks Corp. until mid-November 1960.
Fidel Castro's revolutionary army had overthrown the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista the year before. But on Nov. 21, 1960, two armed men barged into Behn's grandfather's office on the docks.
"They had told them that the Castro regime was taking his property and that he had to leave the country," says Behn from his home in Miami. His grandfather grabbed his wife and children and flew straight to New York. The family lost everything, he says.
Now, nearly six decades later, Behn is suing cruise line company Carnival Corp. for using docks in Cuba that he says were wrongfully taken from his family.
He is among the first U.S. citizens this month who have sued for restitution for property they say was seized after the Cuban Revolution.
The suits came after the Trump administration activated the Title III provision in the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which allows legal action by U.S. citizens or entities over property Cuban officials have confiscated since 1959.
Behn says his claim is valued today at $45 million. While multiple cruise lines dock in the Havana harbor, Behn says the Florida-based conglomerate was the first.
In another suit filed last Thursday, also against Carnival, Florida neurosurgeon Javier Garcia-Bengochea says docks seized from his family in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba were valued at $636,000 back in 1970.
Claimants are not just going after private companies — they are also taking advantage of the Helms-Burton rule to sue the Cuban government.
Exxon Mobil Corp. sued Cuban state-run oil and foreign trade corporations. Both use an oil refinery and other properties that Exxon Mobil says were expropriated by the Cuban government from its predecessor company in 1960. Exxon Mobil is reportedly seeking to recover $280 million in losses.
Behn says he is grateful that President Trump enabled his family to finally seek redress in the courts. "Where the American government would finally back us, to recognize that we're the legitimate owners — was great, was amazing," he says.
He says he only wishes his grandfather could have seen the day when the suit was filed. He died in 2016, the same year Carnival cruise ships began docking in Cuba.
"Anything to get all the riches"
Since its passage more than two decades ago, the Helms-Burton's Title III provision has been waived by all previous presidents, not wanting to anger friendly allies — particularly Canadian and European countries with commercial holdings in Cuba.
But Trump has increasingly taken a hard line on Cuba, citing what he says is its government's support for Venezuela's embattled President Nicolás Maduro. U.S. officials accuse Cuba of aiding Caracas with as many as 20,000 troops, an allegation Cuban authorities deny and for which the U.S. has not provided proof.
European Union officials expressed "strong opposition" to the move to allow lawsuits under Title III, calling it "contrary to international law."
Cuban authorities have put billboards up warning of potential economic hardship due to the Helms-Burton provisions. One seen in several busy intersections shows schoolchildren next to a headline asking why their education budget has been cut.
And at this year's May Day workers' march in Havana, marchers held signs decrying Helms-Burton by name. Sixty-eight-year-old Flora Lorenza Sardina said the law is inhumane. Trump "only thinks about money because he's rich, and he's capable of doing anything to get all the riches and gold in the world," she said.
Whether anyone will get rich or recover property from Cuba is a long shot, given the limitations of suing foreign companies in U.S. courts, says Pedro Freyre, a Florida lawyer with clients doing business in Cuba.
"U.S. litigation is very entertaining. It's a wonderful intellectual challenge. Lawyers make a lot of money. But at the end of the day, it's tremendously inefficient," he says.
Miami-based Carnival Corp. said it has a U.S. Treasury license to do business in Cuba and its cruise schedule remains unchanged.
For now, its cruise ships will continue to use Havana's harbor, letting travelers disembark into a recently refurbished terminal to tour the city.
Asked about Trump's recent sanctions on Cuba, Ellen Haggerty, a cruise passenger who lives between Boston and Miami, does not pay it much mind.
"That's his problem," she says. "It's my money. I'll spend it where I want to spend it."
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