The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump administration announces new measures against Cuba

During a April 17 address, National security adviser John Bolton announced new sanctions against Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. (Video: Reuters)

The Trump administration levied new sanctions on Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua on Wednesday, using the language of the Cold War — and of President Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign — in a vow to combat socialism, communism and human rights abuses.

The heaviest measures were directed at Cuba. U.S. citizens will now be allowed to sue any entity or person found to be “trafficking” in property that was expropriated from U.S. citizens after the 1959 revolution. Trump’s three immediate predecessors in office had suspended that right, sustaining a 1996 law containing Cuba sanctions, on the grounds that it would interfere with trade and national security.

The administration is also reimposing limits on the amounts of money that Cuban Americans can send to relatives on the island, as well as the frequency of transactions, and ordering new restrictions on travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens. Those actions further reverse President Barack Obama’s moves to normalize relations with Havana, which Trump has called “terrible and misguided.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, beginning May 2, Cuban Americans can file lawsuits against persons trafficking in property confiscated by Cuba. (Video: Reuters)

New sanctions were announced against people and entities in Venezuela and Nicaragua, as well as prohibitions on U.S. dollar transactions by the Central Bank of Venezuela and a Venezuelan subsidiary bank in Nicaragua.

The actions were outlined in a fiery speech by national security adviser John Bolton to veterans of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion — the failed, CIA-orchestrated attempt to overthrow the government of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Venezuela’s military, despite U.S. expectations, has not turned on Maduro

Speaking in Miami on the 58th anniversary of the invasion, Bolton compared the aging Cuban Americans to “the brave men of Bunker Hill, Belleau Wood and Normandy,” and said the new measures were being undertaken to “honor your courage . . . by boldly confronting the evils of socialism and communism in the hemisphere.”

The administration has blamed Cuba, and to an increasing extent Russia, for its unsuccessful efforts to force the removal of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. The United States, along with many governments in Latin America and Europe, recognized Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as interim president.

“Tragically, the Obama administration’s misguided Cuba policy provided the Cuban regime with the necessary political cover to expand its malign influence and ideological imperialism across the region,” Bolton said. Trump has described many of his own key foreign policy initiatives as antidotes to Obama’s “mistakes” in Syria, North Korea, Israel, Latin America and beyond.

The author of Venezuela’s own revolution, Hugo Chávez, was an acolyte of the late Cuban leader, as is Maduro. Especially under Maduro, Venezuela has devolved into a bankrupt and oppressive system of patronage and mismanagement that has left millions of Venezuelans with little access to food and medicine, and driven millions more to flee the country.

Under a 2002 agreement between Castro and Chávez, oil-rich Venezuela provides free and subsidized oil to cash-strapped Cuba in exchange for Cuba’s dispatch of thousands of doctors, teachers and other professionals to assignments in Venezuela.

The administration has charged that the tens of thousands of Cubans in Venezuela are actually military and intelligence agents who control Venezuela’s own military and keep Maduro in power. It has already placed sanctions on Venezuela’s state oil company, as well as companies and ships carrying Venezuelan oil to Cuba.

The new sanctions, Bolton said, should be a “strong warning to all external actors, including Russia,” which has provided financial support to Venezuela, sold military equipment to its government, and last month deployed about 100 military personnel there.

Quoting Trump, who has charged the Democratic Party with seeking to install Venezuela-like policies in this country, Bolton said that “the twilight hour of socialism has arrived in our hemisphere.”

Trump, amid growing frustration over Maduro’s staying power, has also threatened military action to unseat him, although U.S. partners in the campaign to squeeze him from office have rejected that option.

Earlier Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the administration would no longer waive a 23-year-old provision giving U.S. citizens, including naturalized Cuban Americans, the right to sue over property they owned there that was confiscated without reimbursement by the Cuban government. Most of the confiscations took place in the early years of Castro’s revolution, when U.S. citizens and many Cubans fled.

The provision, which Pompeo said will take effect May 2, could affect a wide swath of foreign and U.S. investors in Cuba who are utilizing land and buildings that are claimed by litigants. Those judged “traffickers” in uncompensated property can see their U.S. assets threatened and have U.S. visas denied or revoked.

In a joint statement following the announcement, Canada and the European Union, whose companies have substantial investments in Cuba, called the measure “regrettable . . . and an “extraterritorial application of unilateral Cuba-related measures contrary to international law.”

The State Department said that nearly 6,000 claims have already been certified by the Treasury Department as eligible for litigation, and many more could result in judgments totaling more than $10 billion.

Pedro Freyre, chairman of international practice at Akerman LLP, a major Miami law firm, said that “out of a fairly substantial universe” of possible claims, the number of actual lawsuits “could be fairly narrow.”

But the “return to the Cold War” will “definitely have a chilling effect on [future] investment” in Cuba by both U.S. and third country companies, he said.

Although the State Department said there would be “no exemptions” for Cuba investments, Freyre said the law contains a cutout for technology and travel-related business that would appear to exempt U.S. airlines and cruise ships traveling to Cuba.

Bolton said that Cuban Americans would be limited to sending $1,000 every three months to relatives on the island, reversing the Obama-era removal of restrictions on remittances, but he provided no details on what he said were new limits on U.S. citizens’ travel there. A Treasury Department official said regulations would be issued “in the coming months.”

In Florida, which the Trump campaign sees as a key part of its reelection plans, some Cuban Americans worried that the measures would increase the suffering of relatives on the island.

“I don’t think there should be an embargo, because it affects regular Cubans,” said Rosalina Gonzalez, 65, a Miami resident who sends supplies to her sister and extended family.

But at his speech, Bolton was cheered by veterans who frequently interrupted to cheer and chant his name.

“It’s very important for all this to be done,” said Guido Conill, 78, a retired investment banker who participated in the Bay of Pigs invasion. He also said that he hoped the measures would force the Cuban government to stop interfering in Venezuela.

In terms of the effect it may have on Cubans, he said, “you can’t get rid of cancer without suffering.”

Another invasion veteran, Rafael Torres, said: “If at 79, I need to go and fight, I will.”

Carmen Sesin in Miami contributed to this report.