Jamaican hotel chain pulls out of Cuba

Campaign News | Friday, 18 June 2004

Bush applies illegal Helms Burton Law

Jamaica's SuperClubs Super-Inclusive Resorts has pulled out of two hotel contracts in Cuba after the Bush regime threatened to cancel top executives' US visas because the company is "trafficking" in property confiscated from Cuban Americans.

The move marks the first time the Bush regime has applied the controversial Helms-Burton law, which was invoked several times under the Clinton administration, according to the State Department.

The action came as the White House is also tightening rules on travel to Cuba and remittances sent to the island.

Also, the two organizers of a regatta between Key West and Cuba were indicted on charges of running the unauthorized race.

The 1996 Helms-Burton law allows the US government to sanction investors who make use of land that the Cuban government nationalised in the early 1960s.

Although the owners of the land had left the island and had been Cuan citizens at that time, the law retroactively bestows upon them US citizenship. This makes the law illegal uin two ways because it is both extra-territorial and retroactive.

Almost 6,000 Cuban-Americans have filed claims in the US.

This case involves a claim by the Sánchez-Hill family to the land where the Breezes Costa Verde, a 480-room hotel, is located in Holguín province east of Havana.

Kingston-based SuperClubs has had the all-inclusive resort under contract to the Cuban government's tourism arm, Gaviota, for three years, said Zein Issa, SuperClubs' vice president of marketing.

After receiving the May 6 letter from the State Department, which stated that managers and their families would lose their US visas if they continued with Breezes Costa Verde, the company decided to cancel its contract, she said.

"We were caught in the middle of an international political struggle and we were the victims," said Issa, the daughter of SuperClubs President John Issa.

The other hotel that SuperClubs is relinquishing, the 436-room Grand Lido Varadero, which opened about a month ago, is not involved in a property claim dispute.

Issa would not elaborate. But a source close to the situation who did not want to be identified said it was pulled by the Cuban government in retaliation for the Breezes Costa Verde cancellation. SuperClubs still operates two resorts in Cuba, as well as others throughout the Caribbean and Brazil.

"This is a significant victory for us," said Nicholas J. Gutiérrez Jr., the Miami lawyer representing the Sánchez-Hill family and other Cuban-American claimants.

Gutiérrez said the Sánchez-Hills, now US citizens who reside in Florida, New York and Venezuela, have been lobbying Washington for five years to take action on their former Santa Lucía sugar plantation.

The 100,000 acres of waterfront land, which the family had owned since 1857, is now occupied by nine hotels, run by Spanish, French, German and Canadian companies, as well as the SuperClubs property, he said.

The farm's sugar mill is now a museum, he added.

Gutiérrez said that the family had been in negotiations with SuperClubs over compensation for use of the land, but no deal was reached.

"They approached us to make a deal, but they didn't offer us anywhere near what was adequate," he said.

Similarly, the Spanish firm, Sol Meliá has offered the family "a seven-figure sum" in compensation for four hotels on the old plantation, Gutiérrez said, but the family did not accept.

Analysts said it was no accident that the action came in an election year in which President Bush will need to court Cuban Americans to win a tight race in Florida.

It's also no accident that the administration targeted a Jamaican company, said Daniel Erikson, director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

"It's part of a trend of hardening some aspects of Cuba policy," Erikson said. "But let's face it, Jamaica is small potatoes. Jamaica doesn't have significant investment in the US or is in a strategic position."

Tangling with European or Canadian companies would have opened a Pandora's box for Bush at a time when US-European relations are sensitive over Iraq, and European-Cuban ties are tense over dissident issues, Erikson said.

"The US doesn't want to direct ire to Washington," he said.

Nevertheless, the move could serve to dissuade investors who are thinking about delving into Cuba's burgeoning tourism industry, although it's unlikely to scare off those who have already sunk money into the island, other experts said.

"Clearly, this is an attempt to put a little more bite into Cuba policies," said Mark Falcoff of the American Enterprise Institute.

"This type of gesture inevitably discourages new investment."


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