Stop the Hilton Hotels ban

Spring 2007

Outcry as US blockade spreads to the UK tourist sector

When the Hilton hotel banned Cubans from its UK hotels in February, it didn’t reckon on such a forceful and united reaction from CSC, MPs and trade unions. Rob Miller and Natasha Hickman report.

The Cuba Solidarity Campaign, MPs and trade unions have called on the Hilton Group to pledge in writing that it will allow Cuban nationals to stay in its hotels.

The row started after the US-owned Hilton chain refused a booking by a Cuban trade delegation to Norway in January because of the US trade blockade against the island.

In February, Hilton spokeswoman, Linda Bain, announced that this ban was extending to all of its hotels around the world: “We are a US company” stated the vice-president for communications in The Guardian. “The dilemma we face is that [if we took a booking from a Cuban delegation] we would be subject to fines or prison and if anyone [from the company] tried to enter the US, they would be arrested.” She said they were now seeking clarification of their position from the US government.

This discriminatory measure provoked an immediate and forceful response from MPs, Trade Unionists and the Cuba Solidarity Campaign.

This included letters of protest, parliamentary questions and calls from a number of organisations for a boycott of the Hilton Group. In the House of Commons, Labour MP Colin Burgon contacted the foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, to ask her to issue a “robust rebuttal” to the hotel ban. An Early Day Motion(EDM) was tabled on the issue - which quickly gathered cross-party support from 110 MPs.

EDM 828 stated that any ban on Cuban nationals would:

“violate domestic UK anti-discrimination laws and EU safeguards against the use of extra-territorial legislation and would be tantamount to a breach of UK sovereignty as well as being an act of racial discrimination”

It calls upon the UK Government to:

“issue a public statement of opposition to any attempts by the Hilton Group or any other US owned multi-national companies to enforce elements of the illegal US embargo of Cuba in the territory of the United Kingdom.”

In March, the Commission for Racial Equality confirmed that under the Race Relations Act 1976, it is “unlawful to instruct or induce a person to discriminate on racial grounds” and confirmed that they were “investigating” the complaints made against Hilton Hotels.

Unions threaten boycott

In February Dave Prentis, General Secretary of Unison, the UK’s largest trade union with 1.3 million members, said: “... a ban on Cubans, would undoubtedly be a case of overt and disgraceful discrimination.”

“UNISON spends thousands of pounds with the Hilton on conferences and meetings every year, and is already legally and financially committed to using the group for our 2007 annual conference. However, I will have no reservations about moving our business elsewhere and advising our 1.3 million members to join us in boycotting the chain in the future if it does not withdraw this contemptible ban.”

Other major trade unions, including the GMB and Amicus, also wrote to the Hilton threatening them with a boycott the hotel chain if they didn’t publicly reverse their policy.

Bookings cancelled

In February, in an historic move, the parliamentary Scottish Affairs Committee announced it would cancel a booking at a Hilton Hotel in Dundee in “opposition to discrimination and illegal extra-territorial legislation”.

And MP Ian Davidson questioned Prime Minister Tony Blair on the issue during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Parliament.

He said: “Does he (Mr Blair) agree with the European Union and me that American laws-for example, on the boycott of Cuba-should not be applied to American subsidiaries in Britain, Europe or worldwide, and will he agree to raise that with George Bush when next he meets him?”

Mr Blair replied: “I am not sure that I can promise that I will raise the matter with the President, but I am happy to look into it and, if I can be of any help, I will be.”

In response to this pressure, Simon Vincent, President, Hilton UK and Ireland, wrote a letter to UK MPs and the media putting the Hilton case.

Mr Vincent said that the Hilton faced a legal “dilemma” between contradictory US and UK law, and added that Hilton UK has asked US authorities for an exemption from US anti-Cuban laws to allow them to service Cuban nationals.

However, nothing in Mr Vincent’s letter stated explicitly that the Hilton Group was reversing its original statement, which publicly declared that Cubans were banned from its hotels.

The Cuba Solidarity Campaign has made it clear that what is still needed from the Hilton Group is a clear, written statement that Cubans are welcome in its hotels. Until that is received we are working with MPs, trade unionists and the public to maintain pressure on the hotel chain.

US laws rule?

It is vitally important that American businesses do not pander to discriminatory American laws when operating in the UK.

It is not true that the Hilton Hotel Group face a ‘dilemma’, as they claim, between UK and American law. If Hilton Hotels seeks to operate in the UK, then they should be solely subject to UK law. Any discussion over ‘exemptions’ can only be a matter for the US authorities.

The Hilton Hotel Group state that they were seeking clarification of the status quo from their US lawyers. They were quick to point out to journalists that the Sheraton and Marriott hotel groups were operating a similar policy globally.

The Hilton case illustrates once again the far reaching effects of the US aggression against Cuba. The circumstances around this case, and the political backlash against the Hilton Group in the UK, illustrate the importance of a united strategy of solidarity with the island.

As reported previously in CubaSi, in March 2006 the Mexican government fined the Sheraton Maria Isabel hotel in Mexico City around £60,000 for expelling 16 Cuban guests. The Mexican Foreign Ministry said the fine was for violating the national act to Protect Trade and Investment from Foreign Norms that Contravene International Law, passed October 1996 in order to oppose the Helms-Burton extraterritorial law.

[use mexico Sheraton hotel pict here if possible]

The Mexican law used to prosecute the Sheraton is similar to little known UK legislation first adopted under the Tory Government in 1996. If the Mexican Government can be forced to act against those who want to extend the US blockade to third countries then we must demand that the UK Government should itself take appropriate action to ensure that UK based companies obey UK laws.

Threat from EU

It is becoming clear that this year Cuba will yet again face a new onslaught against her sovereignty within the EU. A group of countries lead by the Czech Republic, and supported by Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Lithuania and Slovenia seeks to bring the current EU policy into a more common agenda with the US. The plan, spearheaded by the “Friends of a Democratic Cuba”, a group organised by and under the direct orders of the White House, seeks to bring Europe into what it calls its “short and long term strategy” towards Cuba.

The position of countries such as Britain is ever more important in this new battle to ensure that the EU does not acquiesce completely to the US policy of aggression. Recent positive developments between the Spanish and Cuban governments prove that countries can have an engagement based on mutual respect despite having political disagreements.

Unfortunately, the latest report on Latin America from the British Foreign Office does nothing but continue the long line of US penned attacks on Cuba. There is a need to keep up the pressure on our Government in the build up to the annual review of EU Cuba policy in June. The campaign over Hilton is an important element in this ongoing struggle.

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