Foreign businesses at Cuba tourism fair defy new Trump sanctions

HAVANA (Reuters) - Foreign companies operating in Cuba’s tourism sector said at an industry fair this week they would continue investing in the Caribbean’s largest island despite new U.S. sanctions designed to choke its already beleaguered economy.

Slideshow ( 8 images )

The Trump administration said last month it was tightening U.S. travel restrictions on Communist-run Cuba and allowing U.S. citizens to bring lawsuits against foreign companies profiting from property taken from them after Cuba’s 1959 revolution.

The administration is seeking to pressure Cuba’s Communist government into giving up its support for embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

“It’s obviously a very awkward situation but we will keep on advancing,” said Juan Antonio Montes, general director of the Spanish hotel group Barcelo, which has been based in Cuba for two decades.

Regarding the implementation of the long-dormant section of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act allowing U.S. lawsuits against companies using confiscated property, he said Barcelo would seek a legal way “to be more protected.”

“But we do not have any kind of intention to leave or to modify any current plans,” he said.

The European Union and Canada, whose companies are the top investors in Cuba, particularly in the tourism and mining sectors, have denounced the Trump administration’s implementation of Title III of the Helms-Burton Act. They say it is not valid under international law and their companies could dispose of blocking legislation, for example, to make counterclaims for any U.S. suits they may face.

“Our aim is to keep investing in Cuba and for our companies to have the willingness to contribute to the development of the island,” Spain’s tourism minister, Reyes Maroto, said at the opening of Cuba’s tourism fair on Tuesday.

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who replaced Raul Castro last year, met on Tuesday with foreign businessmen, including the head of Canadian mining company Sherritt, to reassure them about the security of their investments under Cuban law.

Cuba has sought to attract foreign capital ever since the fall of former benefactor the Soviet Union, hoping it could help vitalize its beleaguered, still heavily centralized economy.

“This was an important sign for all companies working in Cuba,” said Alessandro Benedetti, an executive for Swiss-based Kempinski Hotels SA, which runs the luxury Gran Hotel Manzana in Havana, which opened in 2017.

Cruise operator Carnival Corp became the first company sued for profiting from expropriated Cuban property last week under Title III of Helms-Burton by U.S. citizens who hold titles to the Santiago de Cuba and Havana ports.

The ports are used by numerous U.S. cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Lines, which therefore could also face suits.

Reporting by Nelson Acosta; Additional reporting by Sarah Marsh and Reuters TV; Editing by Leslie Adler