The Government was forced to shift the venue for tomorrow's Caricom-Cuba summit from the Hilton Trinidad Conference Centre to the National Academy for the Performing Arts (NAPA), following issues concerning the US embargo on Cuba. The US-owned Hilton in T&T was unable to obtain a licence from the US Government in order to host the Caricom-Cuba summit, a Hilton statement indicated yesterday. Cuban President Raul Castro arrives in T&T at 10.30 am today for the one-day summit which will also be attended by 12 of the 14 Caricom leaders.
The summit brings together regional heads with the leader of Cuba. It will be Castro's first visit to T&T since he assumed the presidency in 2008, succeeding his brother, former Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The summit has been held in Caricom over the last decade as regional territories have deepened ties with Cuba and seek to further enhance co-operation with that country. At the last summit in 2008, then-Cuban President Fidel Castro was presented with Caricom's highest award-the order of Caricom. T&T had later been designated as the location for the next summit.
The venue for the opening ceremony tomorrow and rest of the event had originally been scheduled for the Hilton. The hotel plant is owned by the Government of T&T and is managed by US-owned Hilton company. Delegations of the various leaders were expected to stay at the Hilton also. Last week, however, the Government was informed that there were problems with the situation as a result of the US embargo against Cuba. A statement from Hilton Worldwide-location of the global headquarters-issued yesterday, pointed out that as a US-based company, Hilton Worldwide is subject to US law which restricts certain activities as a result of the trade embargo with Cuba.
The statement added: "The US-Cuban assets control regulations administered by the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the US Department of the Treasury General prohibit US-based companies from providing any services that benefit the Cuban government unless specifically licensed." The statement noted that violations are subject to significant civil and criminal penalties. The Hilton statement noted that while the hotel had worked with the appropriate governmental agencies in the US and in T&T to secure a licence for the summit, the hotel had been informed that the necessary licence would not be granted. The statement referred questions to the US Embassy in T&T.
In 1996, the US passed the Helms- Burton law which prohibits a number of situations concerning Cuba, including recognition of a transitional government in Cuba that includes Fidel or Raúl Castro. The law, named for two US senators who piloted it, strengthens the US embargo against Cuba. Among stipulations, any non-US company that deals economically with Cuba can be subjected to legal action and that company's leadership can be barred from entry into the United States. Sanctions may also be applied to non-US companies trading with Cuba. This means that internationally operating companies have to choose between Cuba and the US, which is a much larger market.
Speaking with the Trinidad Guardian after yesterday's Senate session, Foreign Affairs Minister Suruj Rambachan said: "T&T respects international law and until that is changed, the hosting of the function at the Hilton will not be possible. "In the current circumstances, NAPA has been chosen as the new venue for the opening ceremony of the summit," he added. Rambachan declined further comment. Other officials dealing with the event said legal and constitutional experts had advised the Government to abide by the Helms-Burton agreement even though the Hilton is state-owned.
It was pointed out that former Cuban President Fidel Castro stayed at the Hilton when he attended the launch of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) at the hotel in 1995. The Guardian, however, was informed last night that in 1995 when the ACS summit was held Hilton was an international company and was not fully US-owned. A source explained that the hotel chain is now fully US-owned. Contacted on the issue yesterday, US Embassy public affairs officer Alex McLaren told the Guardian: "Any questions about the venue for the Caricom-Cuba summit would have to be posted to the Foreign Affairs Ministry."
McLaren's reply was the same when asked about the US' view on the hosting of the conference and Cuban delegation at the Hilton, and on queries about the Helms-Burton law. At 11 am yesterday, a spokesman at the Cuban Embassy dismissed the report of a shift of venue as a "non-issue." They said rumours of the situation had been circulating. Later at 4.41 pm, the spokeswoman maintained that the venue for the event was the Hilton.
The Guardian confirmed that delegations attached to the 12 Caricom leaders attending the event will be staying at the Hilton. The Cuban delegation, however, will be staying at Kapok Hotel, it was confirmed. After Castro's arrival this morning, he will hold bilateral discussions with Prime Minister Kamla-Persad Bissessar and will be hosted by Persad-Bissessar at a reception later this evening. Officials said Caricom is expected to place on the agenda, the issue of the US embargo on Cuba. Security will be heavy for Castro's visit.A special bulletproof vehicle is being provided for the Cuban President, the Government has confirmed.