By JUAN O. TAMAYO | Miami Herald
original title: Suit by spy’s ex-wife could stop flights to Cuba
All direct U.S. flights to Cuba may be halted if the ex-wife of a Cuban spy wins a lawsuit to garnish money that South Florida charter companies pay in fees to Cuba, lawyers in the case said Monday.
Ira Kurzban, attorney for the charterers, said he filed a motion Monday to dissolve the writs of garnish by Ana Margarita Martinez, and asked U.S. Judge Frederico Moreno for an emergency hearing.
The eight charter companies, all based in South Florida, have stopped making payments to Cuba, he added. “My clients are now in breach of contract, and Cuba can stop them landing any time.”
Martinez’s suit could deal a blow to the Obama administration’s efforts to increase people-to-people contacts with Cuba, and force Cuban-Americans to go through third countries to visit the island.
An estimated 200 charter flights to Cuba leave monthly from Miami, New York, and Los Angeles carrying 20,000 passengers, industry experts said. The companies must pay Cuban agencies for landing rights, fuel, ground support, and other services.
Charter-company and Cuban officials met in Havana last week to study the legal situation, and Havana decided to withhold a reaction until it determines how the legal case is moving, said a travel-industry member who declined to comment further because of the sensitivity of the case.
Not a Long Shot
Martinez, the ex-wife of Cuban spy Juan Pablo Roque, filed the writs on Feb. 19 to seize those funds. Her attorney, Thomas Withrow of Indianapolis, said the move was ``not a sure shot at all, but also not a long shot.’‘
Her writs were the latest twist in the ongoing efforts to collect on the multi-million-dollar judgements that several people have won against Cuba in U.S. courts. Most of the Cuban funds frozen in U.S. accounts since the 1960s already have been paid out.
Martinez said she’s not trying to halt the flights but wants to collect on the $27 million judgement she won against the Cuban government in 2001, for Roque’s marriage to her under false pretenses.
“These writs are not . . . an effort to hurt U.S. businesses or interfere with air travel to Cuba,” she said in a statement. “To the contrary, (they) seem to be the only way to collect a legal debt from the Cuban government. ... America is a country of laws. Those who do wrong here must compensate their victims.”
Roque, a member of the notorious Avispa spy network, returned to Cuba just before Cuba’s 2006 shoot-down of two Brothers to the Rescue airplanes that killed four South Florida residents. Martinez later won an annulment of their marriage.
Kurzban said he moved to dismiss the writs because they seek to garnish funds that are due to Havanatour and other companies in Cuba, while Martinez won her judgment only against the Cuban government.
All the suits against Cuba were made possible by U.S. laws approved in 1996 and 2002, which cleared the way for private citizens to sue foreign governments for terrorist acts and helped victims collect judgments against terrorist-designated states such as Cuba, Iran, and North Korea. Cuba has never defended itself in the U.S. courts.
Martinez’s request for the writs alleges she was “a victim of a terrorist act. A Cuban spy married her and used her as cover for his espionage activities.”
Her court filings say she has collected $194,000 through release of frozen Cuban assets, but “nothing more is available through this program.” In 2002, she successfully seized a Cuban crop-duster, valued at about $45,000, flown to Key West by a group of refugees.
Kurzban said eventually the case could affect dozens of other flights, since many U.S. airlines are licensed by the U.S. government to pay Cuba fees for overflying its airspace.
The eight charter companies garnished are Marazul, ABC, C&T, Xael, Wilson International Service, Cuba Travel Services, Airline Brokers, and Gulfstream Air Charter.