AUGUST 12, 2016
Judicial Watch is investigating why the U.S. Treasury Department rushed to give a major American hotel company special permission to operate in Cuba for the first time in nearly three decades, possibly with behind-the-scenes collaboration from the State Department. Under the U.S. economic embargo such deals would be prohibited by law, even after President Obama’s efforts to restore relations with the island’s communist regime. Congressional action is required to lift the embargo against Cuba, though the executive branch has latitude in enforcing the law and Obama has reestablished diplomatic ties with Cuba as well as direct air service and mail between the two countries.
A few days before Obama’s historic March trip to Cuba, U.S. hospitality firm Starwood, which operates Sheraton, Westin and other prominent hotel brands, received authorization from the U.S. Treasury Department to run several hotels on the island in apparent violation of U.S. laws. All of the hotels are properties that were confiscated by Cuba’s communist regime without compensating private owners and are currently owned by the Cuban military, which means all profits generated by any commercial venture will finance the regime’s repressive apparatus. Furthermore, the Cuban government will assign hotel workers their jobs and employees will have no labor rights. U.S. law prohibits American companies from operating under these conditions in other countries.
In an announcement celebrating the unusually swift Treasury authorization to do business in Cuba, Starwood Chief Executive Officer Thomas B. Mangas said “with Cuba’s rich history, natural beauty and strong culture, there is no question the entire U.S. hospitality industry has watched Cuba with great interest, and we are thrilled to lead the charge and bring our sophisticated, high-end brands into the market at this inflection point.” Somehow, Starwood beat out several other American companies that have been trying to obtain U.S. government approval to do business in Cuba, according to a mainstream newspaper. Among them is Marriott International whose CEO actually accompanied Obama on his trip to Cuba earlier this year.
To secure the authorization Starwood hired a bigtime Washington D.C. lobbying firm, DLA Piper, to advocate on its behalf. Records show that Starwood has paid DLA Piper $560,000 in lobbying fees since Obama announced he would normalize relations with Cuba in 2014. Judicial Watch has learned that DLA Piper attorney and partner Evan Migdail handled the negotiations between Starwood and the Obama administration. In Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the State Department and U.S. Treasury, Judicial Watch is among other things seeking all records of communication between any official, employee or representative of the respective agencies and Migdail, who is a registered lobbyist representing Starwood. The FOIAs also seek risk assessments, analysis or documents produced or reviewed during the approval process and records of communications—including any foreign policy guidance—between the two agencies related to the authorization.
Cuba’s government is a renowned human rights violator that represses and incarcerates individuals and groups that criticize it. “Officials employ a range of tactics to punish dissent and instill fear in the public, including beatings, public acts of shaming, termination of employment, and threats of long-term imprisonment,” according to a report published by the international group Human Rights Watch. “Short-term arbitrary arrests have increased dramatically in recent years and routinely prevent human rights defenders, independent journalists, and others from gathering or moving about freely.” A few years before the Obama administration removed Cuba from the government’s list of nations that sponsor terrorism, Judicial Watch reported, based on records gathered from Hillary Clinton’s email scandal, that Hezbollah established an operational base on the communist island.
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