U.S. Restrictions on Travel to and Trade With Cuba Return

Effective November 9, 2017, new regulations took effect limiting U.S. travel and trade with Cuba. 

Decades ago, the United States imposed a commercial embargo on Cuba. The embargo existed in one form or another until 2015, when the United States eased some of its restrictions on trade and travel. Then, on June 16, 2017, President Trump signed the National Security Presidential Memorandum (NSPM) on Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba. In accordance with the NSPM, the U.S. Department of State has now published a list of restricted entities associated with Cuba. The list names entities with which direct financial transactions will “generally be prohibited” under the Cuban Assets Control Regulations. The entities on the list are those that are “under the control of, or acting for or on behalf of, the Cuban military, intelligence, or security services or personnel with which direct financial transactions would disproportionately benefit such services or personnel at the expense of the Cuban people or private enterprise in Cuba.” Numerous hotels and tourism agencies, as well as retail shops popular with tourists, are included on the list. As a result, U.S. citizens will again have to travel as part of a group that is accompanied by a group representative and licensed by the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

The new restrictions will not impact certain existing transactions. Contracts that were in place and travel arrangements that were made prior to the new rule taking effect may move forward.

This post was written by Natalie L. McEwan of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C., All Rights Reserved.,© 2017
For more Antitrust Law legal analysis, go to The National Law Review 

U.S. Implements President Trump’s Cuba Policy

On Nov. 8, 2017, the U.S. Government announced new regulations in furtherance of the Trump Administration’s policy regarding Cuba.

In June 2017, President Trump published his National Security Presidential Memorandum “Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba” (NSPM), which announced modification of U.S. policy with respect to Cuba to target the Cuban military, intelligence, and security agencies.  In the NSPM, President Trump emphasized the need to promote the flow of economic benefits to the Cuban people, rather than to its military.  The NSPM further directed the Commerce, State, and Treasury Departments to take various actions implementing the new policy.

Accordingly, regulations were released this week by the U.S. Department of State, Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), and Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) to implement the NSPM, and clarify the limitations imposed on U.S. persons wishing to travel to or do business in Cuba.

This post was written by Sonali Dohale, Kara M. BombachYosbel A. Ibarra & Carl A. Fornaris of Greenberg Traurig, LLP. All rights reserved.,©2017
For more Antitrust legal analysis, go to The National Law Review 

President Trump Shifts the U.S. Policy Towards Cuba

As we have previously reported on the growing fear that the Trump Administration would roll back President Barack Obama’s plan to normalize relations with Cuba. Then-candidate Donald Trump was calling President Obama’s deals with Cuba “one-sided” and beneficial “only [to] the Castro regime.” Last week Friday, at an event at the Manuel Artime Theater in Miami, President Trump officially announced his Administration’s new public policy towards Cuba and fulfilled a campaign promise.

Cuban FlagPresident Trump’s speech culminated in the issuance of a National Security Presidential Memorandum and an accompanying White House Fact Sheet on the U.S. Policy toward Cuba.  In sum, President Trump’s directive:

(a)  Ends economic practices that “benefit the Cuban government” by prohibiting most economic activities with the Cuban military conglomerate, Grupo de Administración Empresarial (“GAESA”). This change is most likely to affect the hotel and tourism industry sectors, since these are the industries said to be largely controlled by GAESA. A list of companies that will be on the “blacklist” will be issued by the State Department at a later date.

(b)   Adheres “to the statutory ban on tourism to Cuba,” by amending regulations related to educational travel (i.e., by ending individual people-to-people travel) and enforcing the strict record keeping requirements related to travel to Cuba.

(c)   Opposes any efforts in the United Nations or other international forums to lift the embargo on Cuba.

(d)   Supports the expansion of internet services and free press in Cuba by convening a task force that will work with non-governmental organizations and private sector entities to examine the challenges and opportunities in those areas.

(e)  Keeps in place the Obama Administration’s elimination of the “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy.

(f)  Ensures that engagement with Cuba in general is advancing the interests of the United States.

As explained in the new FAQs issued by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the policy changes will not go into effect until the Treasury Department and the U.S. Department of Commerce have finalized their new regulations. Importantly, the new Cuba policy changes will not have retro-active effect. Those travel arrangements and commercial engagements that were in place prior to the issuance of the upcoming regulations will not be affected.

Al Cardenas, who heads the Latin America practice group at Squire Patton Boggs and previously served as the former Chairman of American Conservative Union and former Chairman of the Florida GOP, explains:  “Despite the emotional setting and rightful remembrance of the struggles of the Cuban people found in President Trump’s speech, which was focused on a Cuban exile audience, President Trump’s executive action preserves many of the changes made during President Obama’s Administration (some of which were outlined in President Obama’s 2014 Speech). For example, the respective embassies in Washington and Havana will remain open, the U.S. licenses issued to airlines and cruise line companies have been kept, efforts to expand direct telecommunications and internet access will continue, and the additional categories for travel to Cuba for the most part remain in place. While one-step back is the prohibition on U.S. travelers from staying at government-owed facilities, this should be a boon to the family-owned B&B’s and other rentals on the island. It remains to be seen whether there will be a significant drop off in tourist travel to the island.”

Viewed as a whole, President Trump is tightening some areas where improved economic relations with the United States could have benefitted some auspices of the Cuban Government.

This post was written by Beatriz E. Jaramillo and  Stacy A. Swanson of Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLP.

Negotiation By Tweet: The Uncertain Future of U.S. Cuba Relations

U.S. Cuba relationsAfter the announcement of Fidel Castro’s death on November 26, 2016, President Barack Obama sent a message to the Cuban people highlighting his administration’s efforts to improve relations between the United States and Cuba. “History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him…[T]he Cuban people must know that they have a friend and partner in the United States of America,” Obama said.

President-Elect Donald Trump took a different tack, tweeting simply, “Fidel Castro is dead!”

The following Monday, as the first U.S. direct commercial flight in over 50 years landed in Havana, Mr. Trump tweeted: “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal.” It is unclear what he means by the “deal.” President Obama’s relaxation of restrictions on Cuba is not part of a single deal. Rather, the President’s decision to increase engagement and shift policy toward the island nation has been implemented through a gradual series of Presidential Executive Orders, regulatory changes, and shifts in licensing policy.

Mr. Trump’s threat to terminate the “deal” might be read as a threat to reverse the steps the Obama administration has taken to ease travel and trade restrictions on Cuba. That threat has created a great deal of uncertainty for the future of U.S.-Cuba relations. During his campaign, Mr. Trump sent mixed signals about his approach on Cuba. In September 2015, Mr. Trump reportedly commented that “the concept of opening Cuba is fine.” His stance hardened closer to the election (as he fought for votes in the key electoral state of Florida), reportedly saying that he would close the newly opened U.S. Embassy in Havana and undo President Obama’s policies on Cuba.

Other influences may tend to harden Mr. Trump’s views further. His choice of Reince Priebus has a reputation as a Cuba hawk, as do influential members of the Republican Congressional delegation, including Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.  Mr. Trump’s choice to head the National Security Council, Michael Flynn, has written that he sees Cuba as a country “allied with” Radical Islamists in a war against the United States.

Theoretically, undoing President Obama’s efforts would be easy for the new Trump administration. There is no legal barrier to reversing most or all of the Obama administration’s Cuba initiatives.

On the other hand, it is somewhat possible that the businessman in President-elect Trump could influence his views on Cuba, especially considering that his own organization reportedly investigated business opportunities in the Cuban hospitality sector as recently as six months ago. Since hospitality is one of the major sectors benefitting from Obama administration’s Cuba policies, it might provide fertile ground for further opening of the relationship.

There may be a possible approach lying between normalization and retrenchment. As noted by the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, Mr. Trump may choose to require that the Cuban government meet certain requirements as conditions to continuing the existing initiatives. Such conditions might include concrete steps on human rights. At the same time, enforcement of existing restrictions (which are many) could be beefed up through allocations to the chronically underfunded and understaffed Office of Foreign Assets Control within the U.S. Department of Treasury. But negotiating this middle path will be delicate. The Cuban leadership is extremely sensitive to criticism of its human rights record, but there are small signs of movement. For example, when President Obama visited the island in March 2016, he met personally with dissidents critical of both Castro and the United States. And Fox News reported after Fidel Castro’s death that Raul Castro’s regime has moved away from the worst abuses, including executions of dissidents and long-term sentences of political prisoners. But according to the same report, under the Raoul Castro regime, harassment and short-term detention reportedly continues to be used to disrupt the activities of dissident groups. Navigating those issues will place high demands on the diplomatic skills of Mr. Trump’s administration.

According to a recent Pew Research poll, there is broad approval across party lines for reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba and ending the embargo. Many sectors of the American business community would likely oppose rolling back President Obama’s changes, which have broken down economic and social barriers between the United States and Cuba. Travel to Cuba is immensely popular. Many companies have invested millions to enter the Cuban market, with the U.S. government’s authorization. As White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest argued, “unrolling” Obama’s policy is “just not as simple as one tweet might make it seem.” But this may not be enough to sway Mr. Trump.

For American businesses exploring opportunities in Cuba, it is important to be mindful that the next administration is likely to freeze any expansion of Cuba initiatives, at least while the new President sorts out his priorities. In the best case, existing policies might be made contingent on Cuba meeting certain human rights and other objectives important to the new President. Some of the more permissive Obama administration policies could be rescinded, and there may be increased enforcement by OFAC of the restrictions that remain. We also expect that after Inauguration Day, January 20, 2017, work on pending OFAC license applications is likely to be frozen until a clear agenda is set. While the uncertainty is unsettling, we will continue to look to a future, as President Obama stated, “in which the relationship between our two countries is defined not by our differences but by the many things that we share as neighbors and friends – bonds of family, culture, commerce, and common humanity.”

Copyright © 2016, Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP.

OFAC Allows Joint Medical Research with Cuba

OFAC Medical ResearchThe Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), has modified the Cuban Assets Control Regulations (CACR) (31 C.F.R. Part 515) to allow joint medical research between persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction and Cuban nationals. In the context of the CACR, a “person subject to U.S. jurisdiction” includes any non-U.S. entity owned or controlled by a U.S. person or company directly or indirectly.

It is important to note that the focus of this rule is the development and sale of Cuban origin pharmaceutical products into the United Sates and not the sale of U.S. origin products into Cuba. The changes published today have no impact on the sale of U.S. origin pharmaceutical products into Cuba, and the modified rules do not eliminate the need for sales into Cuba to be licensed by the U.S. Department of Commerce and/or the Department of the Treasury.

As a result of this rule change, effective October 17, 2016, U.S. pharmaceutical companies and their foreign subsidiaries, as well as U.S. nationals, are authorized to engage in various types of transactions “incident to obtaining approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of Cuban origin pharmaceuticals, including discovery and development, pre-clinical research, clinical research, regulatory review, regulatory approval and licensing, regulatory post-market activities, and the importation into the United States of Cuban-origin pharmaceuticals,” as well as the “marketing, sale, or other distribution in the United States of FDA-approved Cuban-origin pharmaceuticals, including the importation into the United States of Cuban-origin pharmaceuticals.”

In its most recent Portfolio of Opportunities for Foreign Investment, Cuba identified the biotechnology and pharmaceutical sector, where BioCubaFarma has been producing vaccines and drug products for years, as one of the targets of foreign investment through strategic partnerships. Specifically, the Cuban government stated that it was promoting joint R&D projects, distribution and representation arrangements and technology transfer arrangements that complemented domestic projects in the sector. This week’s changes to the CACR will facilitate participation in these types of investments and activities in Cuba by U.S. companies.

©2016 Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP. All Rights Reserved

Hotels and Hospitality in Cuba: OFAC and Obama Paving the Way

cuba_800_11429With more flights, relaxing regulations, a historic presidential trip to Cuba, and news of hospitality services expanding into Cuba, the pathway into Cuba for hotels and hospitality companies seems smooth.  But businesses should look out for the potential hurdles and compliance risks.  Don’t fret – we can help you welcome your guests.

Reserve Your Room: Regulatory Background. Since President Obama announced the intent to improve our country’s relationship with Cuba and its people a year and a half ago, several revisions to the sanctions regime have focused on easing restrictions related to travel between the two nations.  In February 2016, Cuba and the United States agreed to reestablish commercial air travel between the two countries.  According to media reports, this agreement means the potential for 110 daily round-trip flights in and out of Cuba, including 20 daily flights to Havana.

Soon after the agreement was announced, major U.S. airlines submitted applications to fly commercial flights to Cuba.  Though tourist travel is still prohibited, twelve fairly broad categories of travel are authorized, including family visits, travel for government work, journalism, professional research, humanitarian work and educational activities, and “people-to-people” educational travel.

In mid-March of this year, the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) again revised the Cuban Asset Control Regulations (CACR), permitting more travel-related transactions.  According to OFAC, the steps “expand opportunities for economic engagement between the Cuban people and the American business community.”  The agency announced the changes in preparation for President Obama’s historic trip to Cuba.

  • People-to-people educational travel. Previously, the general authorization for educational travel required that trips took place under the sponsorship of an organization and required that a representative from the organization accompany the travelers. The regulations no longer require booking through an authorized organization when going to Cuba under the people-to-people educational travel general license. This means that U.S. persons can freely travel to Cuba to engage in educational exchange activities that enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote Cubans’ independence from their government, as long as they keep records of the travel transactions and full-time schedule of activities.

  • Financial Transactions. The regulations enable U.S. banks to process U.S. dollars and travelers’ checks from Cuban banks, to conduct U-turn transactions in which Cubans have an interest, and to allow Cuban nationals to open bank accounts to receive payments in the U.S.

  • Business Presence. In addition, the regulations allow certain carrier and travel services providers to maintain a business presence in Cuba under a general license.  This means that travel-service providers are authorized to establish and maintain subsidiaries, branches, offices, joint ventures, franchises, and other business relationships with any Cuban national, and enter into all necessary agreements or arrangements with such entity or individual.

These changes encourage much more travel between Cuba and the United States, ease restrictions that affect the ability to operate hotels and hospitality services in Cuba, and demonstrate a policy shift in favor of facilitating business, particularly in the travel sector, in Cuba.

Checking In: President Obama’s Historic Visit.  In late March 2016, President Obama visited Cuba as the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge visited in 1928.  Not only was President Obama’s visit a diplomatic feat as he quoted Cuban independence poet Jose Marti’s line: “Cultivo una rosa blanca” (“Cultivate a white rose”) in a live address on Cuban television, but it was also a marked invitation for more American business involvement in the island nation.  Notably, Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson accompanied President Obama on his visit.  According to media reports, Marriott is pursuing business opportunities to run or develop hotels on the island, and to provide training and opportunities for Cuban nationals to supply hotel needs.

Enjoy Your Stay: A Suite of Opportunities.  As a result of the steady changes in the travel regulations, many hotels and hospitality companies are eager to take advantage of the opportunities that await in Cuba.  Even before the most recent updates announced this year, Airbnb announced its presence in Cuba to provide bookings for U.S. travelers in the authorized travel categories.  More recently, the company announced it has received permission from OFAC to open its doors to non-U.S. travelers as well.  Starwood has reportedly signed three deals to open properties in Havana, apparently being the first hospitality company to obtain specific authorization from OFAC to operate hotels in Cuba.  We think this signals OFAC’s willingness to use its licensing authority favorably for hotel and hospitality companies looking to develop in Cuba.

Earlier this month, a trade fair in Havana hosted a hall full of companies in the construction industry eager to get in on the ground floor of real estate and hotel projects that seem to be on the horizon.  U.S. travel to Cuba reportedly increased between 77 percent in 2015, and this upward trend is expected to continue as a result of the recent regulatory changes.  As the travel restrictions ease, travel-related businesses may gain greater latitude to develop the infrastructure to support such travelers and provide economic benefits to the Cuban people.

Check All Your Belongings: Compliance Challenges to Consider

  • Working under General Licenses. Though there is a general license authorizing certain travel services, providing lodging services is still prohibited unless specifically licensed by OFAC. Tourist travel is still prohibited by statute. Businesses that wish to operate under the general licenses must put together procedures that comply with these restrictions.

  • Getting Authorization. In order to effectively negotiate and finalize agreements with Cuban counterparties for the provision of services outside the general licenses, U.S. companies must receive authorization from OFAC.  This makes doing business difficult because putting in the resources and time to apply and receive authorization may not make business sense unless companies have concrete opportunities.  OFAC is currently inundated with applications and Cuba questions.  Hotel and hospitality companies looking to expand in Cuba should plan as early as possible and be prepared for the license application process and approval to take several months.

  • Restrictions on Property and Development. The inability to own property outright under Cuban law is an obstacle for many hotel companies that seek to invest in facilities that will maintain and build their brands.  It is a challenge to find an existing property to develop or property on which to build. It can be an even greater challenge to import the materials needed to develop and maintain the property.  Even if a company acquires authorization to build and develop a hotel, there will be a plethora of suppliers who may also need to seek authorization.  S. businesses must plan accordingly when seeking authority to develop properties.

  • Dealing with the Cuban Government. S. businesses will have to learn quickly about negotiating with the Cuban government and getting government approvals because most potential counterparties are state-owned, and each step in the development process will likely include government involvement. This also raises corruption risks (Don’t forget the FCPA!) as companies wine and dine potential counterparties and work toward getting permits.

  • Employee Base. For foreign companies seeking to establish a brand in the market, restrictions on hiring may pose extreme challenges.  Employment in Cuba is not left to market dynamics. Hiring Cuban employees involves working with the Cuban government and hiring the personnel designated by the government.  Generally the employer is required to pay the Cuban government directly, and the government pays the employees.  Complying with such Cuban laws may fly directly in the face of a company’s business model and may compound the U.S. law compliance challenges.

  • Cuban Law. Having counsel who understand the Cuban legal landscape and regulatory challenges will be crucial for U.S. companies.  Structuring deals in Cuba that comply with Cuban law can be tricky.  The legal infrastructure in Cuba for foreign investment is not well developed, so U.S. companies will face a steep learning curve to successfully finalize and implement deals in Cuba.  Moreover, Cuban lawyers have very different ethical obligations than U.S. clients may be used to (including a virtual complete lack of attorney-client privilege).

Even with the host of challenges, exploring the Cuban market presents an intriguing opportunity for hotel and hospitality companies.  With the right compliance strategy and the right team, U.S. businesses could enjoy their stay in Cuba for years to come.

© 2016, Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP.

Improved US – Cuba Relations Create Potential FCPA Risks for US Companies Looking to do Business There

The normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba offers potential lucrative business opportunities for companies that are prepared to meet Cuba’s unique corruption risks. On December 17, 2014, President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced the restoration of full diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba; an act which President Obama stated was aimed at ending “an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests” and that would instead begin to “normalize relations between our two countries.” In furtherance of that goal, on January 16, 2015, the U.S. Government eased travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba and, perhaps more importantly, reduced certain obstacles that prevented American companies from doing business on the island. For example, U.S. businesses will be allowed to provide financing to Cuban small businesses and sell communications devices, software, and hardware services among other things. Indeed, American companies in the aviation, telecommunications, or financial industries stand to gain a substantial foothold in a burgeoning new – and potentially lucrative – Cuban market.

Before diving in head first, however, American companies must recognize and prepare for the significant Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”) risks inherent in doing business in Cuba. But first, a quick refresher on the FCPA. Generally speaking, the FCPA prohibits bribing foreign officials for the purpose of obtaining or retaining business. The term “foreign official” is broadly defined and includes, among other things: (i) officers or employees of a foreign government or any department, agency, or instrumentality thereof; or (ii) anyone acting in an official capacity for or on behalf of said foreign government or any department, agency, or instrumentality thereof.

Doing business in Cuba presents a host of unique FCPA risks, three of which are particularly worth highlighting. First, while the Cuban government has taken steps to permit its citizens to open small businesses, the vast majority of Cuba’s economy remains government-owned and controlled. Former economist for the International Monetary Fund, Ernesto Hernandez-Cata, estimated that the Cuban government, directly and through state-owned businesses, accounts for more than 75% of Cuba’s total economic activity.  Essentially, the state is involved in virtually all of the island’s major businesses, including services typically run by the private sector in the U.S. In other words, American companies will almost certainly deal with foreign officials when doing business in Cuba.

Second, Cuban government officials are notoriously undercompensated. On average, government officials earn between $20 and $40 per month while, in some cases, being tasked with administering Cuba’s multi-million dollar business ventures. Unsurprisingly, low wages and extensive state involvement in business matters have incentivized some Cuban officials to solicit bribes (and, occasionally, have tempted foreign companies to offer them). For example, in September 2014, Cy Tokmakjian, Claudio Vetere, and Marco Puche, executives at Tokmakjian Group, a Concord, Ontario, Canada-based company,  were convicted of using bribery and other means to avoid paying taxes. They received sentences of 15, 12, and 8 years respectively as part of President Raul Castro’s crack down on graft and other forms of corruption. Tokmakjian, Vetere, and Puche may not be subject to the FCPA, but similar payments by American companies in Cuba would likely expose the companies and employees to FCPA liability.

Third, and finally, Cuba suffers from a widespread lack of transparency. The 2015 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Cuba 56th out of 168 countries surveyed, tied with Ghana.  American companies may find themselves in the dark with respect to Cuban regulations and procurement practices. As a result, companies may not be aware of inconsistent and/or improper application of Cuban regulations. Worse still, American companies may be unaware of the true purposes for certain payments. For example, a company may be informed that a particular payment is required to obtain a specific license but find out that the money was directed to a foreign official.

Note that the FCPA does have a knowledge requirement; however, knowledge may be demonstrated by establishing awareness of a high probability of impropriety, unless the person actually believed that there was nothing improper in that instance. See 15 U.S.C. § 78dd-1(f)(2). The “high probability” standard was intended to ensure that the FCPA’s “knowledge” requirement included instances of “conscious disregard” and “willful blindness.” H.R. Rep. No. 100-576, at 919 (1988) (citing United States v. Bright, 517 F.2d 584 (2d Cir. 1975)); see also United States v. Kozeny, No. 09-cr-4704, 2011 WL 6184494 (2d Cir. Dec. 14, 2011). Furthermore, the vast majority of FCPA cases settle before trial which means that there is little case law that speaks specifically to the FCPA’s scienter requirement. As a result, the DOJ and SEC have broad discretion to attempt to settle cases based on facts that may be out of tune with a strict interpretation of the FCPA’s scienter requirement.

At a minimum, reducing FCPA risks in any foreign country requires that companies take a few basic, but important, steps: conduct a risk assessment of the country, the industry, and the market; use the assessment to prepare a potent anti-bribery policy aimed at both prevention and remediation; implement the policy and disseminate it to all employees; adequately train employees and company agents; and modify the policy when necessary to ensure adequate protection in a changing market.

More specifically, doing business in Cuba – a market with which few American companies are deeply familiar – requires a thorough risk assessment. The quality of the analysis can mean the difference between a deficient anti-bribery policy and one that adequately shields the company from risk exposure. Accordingly, American companies should seek the advice of counsel before, during, and after the assessment. Counsel with experience in dealing with FCPA issues will be well-equipped to make sure the risk analysis is efficient, comprehensive, and targeted. This information will prove invaluable when designing an anti-bribery policy. Furthermore, experienced counsel can assist in implementing the policy, modifying the policy to ensure ongoing effectiveness, and representing the company should any FCPA-related issues arise.

© 2016 Bracewell LLP