Cuba’s in the Air: The Legal Challenges to Loaning Art from Cuba due to Judgments under the State Sponsored Terrorism Exception

By Mandy Estinville*

Cuba and the United States are closer now than they have been for 50 years. In 2015, the United States officially removed Cuba from its list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. Moreover, the Obama Administration amended the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) regulations to allow for greater freedom in travel and remittances, and to permit U.S. telecommunications, media, construction, and agricultural companies to establish a physical presence in Cuba. Most recently, the United States loosened certain sanctions on Cuba, including lifting the $100 limit on bringing Cuban rum and cigars into the United States. Although future of the normalization process between the two countries is uncertain under the Trump administration, a continuation of diplomatic relations with Cuba will promote cultural exchanges, such as selling and loaning art to museums and galleries. In fact, The Art Newspaper reports that the “market for Cuban art is booming; 20th-century Modernists such as Wifredo Lam, Amelia Pelaez, and Rene Portocarrero are particularly popular.” 

Despite improved relations between the two countries, there remain many unresolved issues that may affect Cuba’s willingness to export art to the U.S. In particular, Cuba owes about $7 billion dollars in property claims to American citizens and corporations whose property in Cuba was seized by the Cuban government during the Fidel Castro administration. In addition to those claims, Cuba is responsible for default judgments totaling over $3 billion dollars for purported acts of terrorism against U.S. citizens. Until paid, judgment holders of terrorist-related claims may attempt to seize any Cuban governmental owned art that enters the U.S. for a museum exhibition.

The State Sponsor Terrorism Exception

The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (“FSIA”) provides that  foreign states are immune from the jurisdiction of state and federal courts. However, Congress has created certain terrorism-related exceptions to the general immunity that foreign sovereigns enjoy within the U.S. Namely, the State Sponsor Terrorism exception (“SST”) allows courts to exercise jurisdiction over claims against foreign state sponsors of terrorism that cause personal injury or death to the U.S. citizens.

Cuba was originally placed on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list in 1982 for reportedly sponsoring communist groups in other countries. After Congress enacted the State Sponsor Terrorism exception to the FSIA, many plaintiffs filed human rights lawsuits against Cuba. Consequently, in many cases, courts found Cuba liable for acts of terrorism against U.S. citizens. These cases were ex parte proceedings, which resulted in default judgments since Cuba failed to appear. In Alejandre v. Republic of Cuba, the Florida Southern District court found jurisdiction under the SST exception and held Cuba liable for the Cuban Air Force’s shoot-down of two U.S. registered civilian planes in 1996, killing four people, three of them U.S. citizens. Each plaintiff, in that case, was awarded between $16 and $17.5 million dollars in compensatory damages as well as $137.7 million dollars in punitive damages.  The Florida Circuit court  also found jurisdiction under SST exception in Hausler v. Republic of Cuba and held Cuba liable for the execution of Bobby Fuller in 1960. Mr. Fuller’s family was awarded $65 million dollars in economic losses, $35 million dollars for non-economic compensatory damages, and—notably—$300 million in punitive damages. Lastly, the court in Villoldo v. Ruz found jurisdiction under the SST exception and held Cuba liable for its role in the imprisonment and torture of Gustavo Villoldo following the Cuban Revolution. As a result, the court awarded the plaintiffs a $2.79 billion dollars judgment against the Republic of Cuba and other Cuban parties.

Enforcing Judgments Against Cuba

Although the plaintiffs in Villoldo, Hausler and other cases won sizable judgments against Cuba, the Cuban government failed to make any payments. Challenges to obtaining payment for these judgments remain since Cuba has no attachable property in the United States. Consequently, the plaintiff’s only current viable option is to go after the estimated $243.2 million dollars worth of assets previously blocked by the Kennedy administration following the Cuban Missile Crisis. These assets were originally blocked, or “frozen,” in order to prevent Cuba from using the United States banking system to transfer money to other Latin countries for use by local communist groups.

Some plaintiffs have been successful in attaching their judgment to Cuban blocked assets under section 201(A) of Terrorism Risk Insurance Act. This Act allows for the liquidation of blocked or frozen assets of a foreign state designated as a state sponsor of terrorism, or its agency or instrumentality, to satisfy a judgment against the foreign state for a claim based on SST. In fact, plaintiffs in Weininger v. Castro collected over $90 million dollars on their terrorist-related judgments against Cuba by liquidating frozen bank accounts owned by Cuban telecommunications companies. Because Cuban assets in the United States  are sparse, plaintiffs are forced to be creative in enforcing their judgments. For instance, a plaintiff unsuccessfully sought to have a $63.6 million judgment paid out of BNP’s forfeiture of funds for its criminal conduct of processing and transferring billions of U.S. dollars to and from entities in Sudan, Iran, and Cuba.

Judgments against Cuba under the State Sponsored Terrorism Act may attach to Art loaned from Cuba

A potential unintended consequence of the normalization between Cuba and the U.S. is that it may provide plaintiffs with another viable option to collect on their judgments against Cuba. Section 1610 (a) of FSIA provides limited exceptions to immunity by allowing claimants to attach their judgments to foreign state’s property in the U.S. under certain circumstances.21 Under § 1610 (a) (7), claimants with judgments related to the State Sponsor Terrorism exception can attach that judgment to any Cuban governmental property. This attachment can occur regardless of whether the property is or was involved with the claim so long as the property is in the U.S. in connection to a commercial activity.

Typically, museums can apply to protect internationally loaned artworks from seizure under the Immunity from Seizure Act (“IFSA”). This protection is not automatic, once a museum submits its application to the State Department, the President or his designee must determine whether the object is of cultural significance and whether the temporary exhibition is in the national interest.  While IFSA may protect Cuban loaned art from attachment for judgments relating to SST claims, it is unclear if the State Department will grant this immunity for Cuban loaned art under the Trump administration since the future of the normalization process between the U.S. and Cuba is uncertain. Without an approved IFSA application, it is likely that the risk of possible attachment for judgments obtained against Cuba will curtail the chances of Cuba exporting its art to the U.S. for temporary exhibits. Relatedly, Cuba recently failed to loan art to the Bronx Museum for the “Wild Noise” exhibit despite a ruling from the Obama administration granting the pieces protection from seizure. Instead, the museum exhibited pieces from private collectors and galleries. Cuba’s reluctance to loan art to museums in the U.S. may be attributed to the diplomatic uncertainties under the Trump administration.

In December 2016, Congress enacted the Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Immunity Clarification Act ( the “Immunity Clarification Act””), which amended the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act in response to the Malewicz v. City of Amsterdam finding that temporary art loans for exhibits are deemed a commercial activity. This new law clarifies that the act of exporting art that has been granted immunity from seizure under IFSA for a temporary exhibit in the U.S. is not considered a commercial activity and is, therefore, immune from U.S litigation. Despite the potential for this new amendment to increase international art exchanges, Cuba may still be vulnerable to expropriation claims if it exports art that was confiscated during Fidel Castro regime. One of the exceptions carved out in the Immunity Clarification Act disallows immunity for works “taken in connection with the acts of a foreign government as part of a systematic campaign of coercive confiscation or misappropriation of works from members of a targeted and vulnerable group.” Cuba may fall under that exception since it had systematically seized all Cuban property including property belonging to American individuals and corporations without compensation after the 1959 revolution led by Castro.

The ongoing disputes and outstanding claims and judgments between Cuba and the United States are not going to disappear. It has been reported that in addition to the  claims the U.S. has against Cuba, Cuba asserts that the United States also owes Cuba billions in reparations and for the economic damage caused by the embargo as well as damages resulting from events such as the Bay of Pigs invasion. Due to the precarious nature of Cuba’s relationship with the U.S, it is imperative that Cuba resolves its outstanding judgments in the U.S. before it risks loaning any of its art to a U.S museum.

From the Editors:

Cuba CollageOn March 22, 2017, Cardozo Law School’s Art Law Society and the Fashion, Arts, Media, and Entertainment Law Center (FAME) hosted a symposium, about Cuban art and the art market called “Not Their Art! Demystifying the Cuban Plunder and Nationalization of Art, Hoping for Restitution, and Predicting the Future of the Embargo and Its Sanctions.” Abigail McEwen, a specialist in Cuban and Porto Rican art of the twenty-century, moderated the event. There were three speakers at the event: Monica Dugot, the current International Director of Restitution at Christie’s, Carmen Melian, the former Director and Senior Specialist in Latin American Art at Sotheby’s New York for 15 years, and Carl Micarelli, a New York lawyer that advises clients on compliance with with regulations from the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Presentations at Cardozo centered around how artworks that were confiscated (or nationalized) by the Cuban government following the Cuban Revolution and the complicated relationship between Cuba and the United States have caused long-term problems still affecting the art market. For example, Dugot spoke about how Christie’s strives to make restitution of artwork for families that have had artwork confiscated an easy process for any valid claim that arises and is supported by sufficient documentation. Melian provided many examples of how artwork has come to market outside Cuba, including one involving a Cuban priest who sold artworks that were left with the church in an effort to provide funds for the parish, other examples centered around how many artist such as Wilfredo Lam who fled Cuba left many works behind, and how many forgeries permeate the art market as artworks are being copied from photographs with Cuban art in the background. Questions of authenticity and title have presented significant problems for provenance research and have complicated even the basic determination of whether artworks were privately or state-owned property. Micarelli informed the audience about the various U.S. laws and embargos  imposed vis-a-vis Cuba that affect the art market; he warned the audience about the uncertainty of U.S. policy in relation to Cuba.

The market for Cuban artwork is said to be growing, but the sentiment of the panel was to be cautious when a buyer is going to purchase artwork that is from Cuba because of so much uncertainty surrounds ownership of the artwork that comes from Cuba.

Select Sources and Suggested Reading

  1. Julie Hirshchfield Davis, U.S. Removes Cuba From State-Sponsored Terrorism List, New York Times (May 29, 2015) https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/30/us/us-removes-cuba-from-state-terrorism-list.html.
  2. Frequently Asked Questions Related to Cuba https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Documents/cuba_faqs_ne.w.pdf
  3. Julie Hirshchfield Davis, Obama, Cementing New Ties With Cuba, Lifts Limits on Cigars and Rum, New York Times (October 14, 2016)  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/15/world/americas/obama-cuba-trade-embargo.html?_r=0.
  4. David D’Arcy, Cuba refuses to return seized art despite thaw in relations with US, The Art Newspaper (Feb. 23, 2015) http://old.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Cuba-refuses-to-return-seized-art-despite-thaw-in-relations-with-US/36940
  5. Mari-Claudia Jimenez, “RESTITUTING LOOTED CUBAN ART,” ASCA Cuba in Transition (2009), available at http://www.ascecuba.org/c/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/v19-jimenez.pdf
  6. 28 U.S.C. § 1605
  7. 28 U.S.C. § 1605A
  8. CRS Report for Congress: Cuba and the State Sponsors of Terrorism List https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL32251.pdf
  9. 996 F. Supp. 1239 (S.D. Fla. 1997).
  10. Hausler v. Republic of Cuba, No. 02-12475, 2007 WL 6870681 (Fla. Cir. Ct.
    Jan. 19, 2007).
  11. Villoldo v. Ruz, No. 08-14505 CA-25, 2009 WL 1832603, at *2 (Fla. Cir. Ct. May
    29, 2009).
  12. Can Creditors enforce Terrorism Judgment against Cuba? https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/terror/creditors.pdf
  13. Terrorist Assets Report for Calendar Year 2015 https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Documents/tar2015.pdf
  14. Cuban Assets in U.S Frozen by Treasury, Chicago Tribune (July 9, 1963) http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1963/07/09/page/1/article/cuban-assets-in-u-s-frozen-by-treasury
  15. Terrorism Risk Insurance Act of 2002, Pub. L. No. 107-297, § 201, 116 Stat. 2322.
  16. 462 F. Supp.2d 457, 98-503 (S.D.N.Y. 2006)
  17. United States v. BNP Paribas S.A., 14 Cr. 460 (LGS) (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 30, 2015)
  18. 28 U.S.C. § 1610(a)
  19. Immunity from Seizure Act: 22 U.S.C § 2459 https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/USCODE-2011-title22/html/USCODE-2011-title22-chap33-sec2459.htm
  20. Randy Kennedy, Bronx Museum Won’t Get Loan of Art From Cuba, New York Times (Jan. 23, 2017) https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/23/arts/design/bronx-museum-of-the-arts-cuba-declines-to-send-art.html
  21. Malewicz v. City of Amsterdam, 517 F. Supp. 2d 322; H.R. 6477
  22. Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Immunity Clarification Act: H.R. 6477 https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/6477
  23.  Frances Robles, Cuba Seizures Now Present Opportunities, New York Times (Dec. 21, 2014) https://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/22/world/cuba-seizures-now-present-opportunities.html.
  24. Senior State Department Official on Cuba Claims Discussions https://2009-2017.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2016/07/260666.htm

About the Author: Mandy Estinville is an attorney based in New York, NY. She can be reached at mandyestinville@gmail.com.

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not meant to provide legal advice. Any views or opinions made in the linked article are the authors alone. Readers are not meant to act or rely on the information in this article without attorney consultation.

 

Broad or narrow: Taxman reviews “Private” Museums

By David Honig, Esq.*

screen-shot-2016-11-23-at-1-48-18-pmLast year, on November 20, 2015, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) launched a review of eleven US private museums in response to a recent New York Times Article that exposes a possibility for abuse of 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. Every “domestic or foreign organization described in section 501(c)(3)” is considered a private foundation, unless it fits into one of four scenarios, dealing with where the organizations “support” is derived, set out in § 509(a).  Senator Hatch’s investigation did not include all nongovernment owned museums as the term “private museum” suggests – after all many of the most renowned museums in the United States, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Chicago are private museums even if they are not thought of as such. Instead, Senator Hatch looked into a subset of museums that only have one donor and are designated private foundation under 26 U.S.C. § 509.

The investigation, which concluded in May of 2016, sought to determine whether, and how much, these museums benefit the public. This inquiry was ignited by the fear that these private foundation museums are offering minimal benefit to the public while affording the donors substantial benefits including tax deductions. For example, the New York Times article mentions that at least two of these museums, Glenstone in Potomac, MD and the Brant Foundation Art Study Center in Greenwich, CT, require reservations and “[are] open only a few days a week to small groups.” The reason this matters is the tax advantages afforded to charities with 501(c)(3) nonprofit status are granted because of the public benefit these organizations provide. Logic suggests, if these museums are not providing a public benefit they should not be given preferential treatment. The real issue is not whether these museums provide a public benefit but whether the benefit provided can justify the private reward. In other words, should individuals capable of purchasing multi-million dollar artworks be afforded a discount on creating and maintaining private viewing salons?  Before determining whether these museums provide enough or any public benefit some background should be given, first on the museums themselves then on the tax benefits associated with this setup.

Screen Shot 2016-11-23 at 1.50.14 PM.png  

The Private Museums

The United States has a long history of encouraging private enterprise. This can be seen in airlines, railroads, institutions of higher education and charitable organizations. The investment of private capital helps alleviate some of the financial strain felt by the state, while encouraging private organizations or individuals to provide public services. Seeking to reward private investment for the public good, “Congress sought to provide tax benefits to charitable organizations, to encourage the development of private institutions that serve a useful public purpose or supplement or take the place of public institutions of the same kind.”

One way Congress provided tax benefits to charitable organizations was by creating 26 U.S.C. § 501. Section 501(a) grants tax exempt status to certain organizations. Relevant here are corporations “organized and operated exclusively for … charitable … or educational purposes … ”. Seeking to take advantage of this section of the internal revenue code collectors have created organizations and donated artworks to them in order to establish museums for their private collections.

The Tax Scheme

One benefit of creating a nonprofit organization and donating artworks to it is clear – if the museum charges an entry fee the revenues can be used to maintain the artworks and space without the donor having to pay taxes. By relinquishing ownership of these works the donor no longer bears sole responsibility for upkeep. Since 9 of the 11 museums surveyed by Senator Hatch do not charge an admission fee, most of the founding donors have to donate more funds to insure the works and premises do not deteriorate. On its face, the free admission scheme is detrimental to the founding donor. In addition to paying for the upkeep, although possibly at a subsidized rate, the founding donor must also relinquish control of the works to the nonprofit corporation for the corporation to be eligible for the tax benefits under the internal revenue code.

Taking these issues in turn, the first, having to pay for upkeep, could actually be a benefit. The internal revenue code, specifically section 170, allows a donor to deduct a “contribution or gift” made to, among other organizations, corporations that qualify for 501(c)(3) tax exempt status. This means that besides possibly paying a reduced rate for the upkeep and maintenance of her art and a facility to house said art, the founding donor can deduct the amount donated to the museum to cover these costs.

In addition to allowing deductions for contributions section 170 also allows a donor to deduct gifts made to authorized organizations. By converting a collection that was privately owned by an individual into one that is held by a museum for the “public’s benefit” the founding donor can use money that would have been personally spent for upkeep of the art to reduce her taxes. By combining tax exempt status granted by 501 with the deductions afforded for charitable contributions in section 170 a founding donor is duly rewarded. Note: the internal revenue code places a limit, usually 50% of gross income, on the amount of deductions a person can take each year for charitable donations.

Tax deductions are not the only reason for a founding donor to entertain creating this type of organization. Once the works are donated the museum owns them and a donor no longer has no control, or so it would seem. If the donor serves on the board of directors, acts as president or serves in some other executive position the donor could execute control over the works of art. In fact, this is exactly what “many” of the founding donors are doing. An example of this is the Broad in downtown Los Angeles, whose founders Eli and Edythe Broad serve on the Board of Governors.

A donor that serves on the board or as an executive will be involved in not only how the artwork is managed but more importantly the operations of the museum. This includes determining hours of operations, admission price, what works should be bought and sold, displayed, put into storage or on loan. It is easy to see why Senator Hatch was worried about abuse of these tax exemptions since donors are able to reap huge tax benefits while seemingly giving up little in their enjoyment and control of art. In fact, some of the museums surveyed said that they are located on land owned by or partially by the founding donor. In other instances, museums are located on land adjacent to the donor’s residence. In order for this scheme to make sense and continue the public must get some benefit.

Public Benefits

“[C]harities [are] to be given preferential treatment because they provide a benefit to society.” It follows, that if there is no benefit to the public then the charity should not be given preferential treatment and a donor should not be allowed to receive tax deductions for donations to that charity. But the issue here is not one of existence of benefit it is one of degree of quality and quantity of benefit. The question ultimately boils down to whether or not these museums provide enough public benefit to be given preferential treatment and how is that determination made. In other words, what is the required level of public benefit that an organization must produce in order to receive preferential tax treatment under section 501 and how is it determined?

Unfortunately, it is hard to determine whether action actually benefits the public and the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) guidelines are not very helpful on this front. Besides being open to the public for viewing and informing the public of access, it really is not clear what is required of an organization to achieve tax exempt status.

There are clear benefits to founders of private museums but the question remains are those benefits enough. For instance, of the 11 museums that received a letter from Senator Hatch 10 of them responded that they engage in or have engaged in loan programs. This means that a work of art that would normally be displayed in someone’s home or sit in storage was put on display for a large number of people to see. The creation of more museums allows works to be displayed that otherwise would sit in a basement or storage facility and never be seen by the public.  

Not only does the creation of more museums allow for more work to be shown it allows different work to be shown and curated in different ways. Private museums allow the whims of one person to dictate how and what art is acquired and later displayed. This type of museum does not have to focus on what it thinks would be the most educational exhibit for its visitors as traditional public museums do. Instead the exhibits can focus on art or whatever emotion or reaction a curator wants to provoke. This too is “educational” in its own right even though it is not designed with that purpose in mind.

Maybe the best example of this would be Eli and Edythe Broad’s Broad Museum in Los Angeles, California. The Broad is the poster child for what these types of private museums can be. It is open most days of the week and draws large crowds of young people. In addition to its visitors having a lower average age than the national average of museum goers, 32 compared to 45.8, as of March 2016 70% of the Broad’s visitors were younger than 34 years old.

The Broad represents what these museums can be, but just because others do not do as much as the Broad does not mean they do not do enough to benefit the public. The limited hours and days of operation and reservations requirements can be justified: the founder wanted to create unique and more intimate experiences for visitors. Should it matter that this type of public benefit is intangible?

Ignore for a second the obvious benefit of public access to these artworks. Also ignore the limited circumstances some of the museum allow the public access to these works – a reason for reduced access might be that these museums are new and the operating expenses associated with keeping more traditional matters currently do not make sense because of number of guest expected. How is it determined whether the public receives enough or any benefit at all? Maybe the benefit is not clear or scientific, maybe it is indirect, or maybe it will take years to manifest but once it does it will be incalculable. The fact is public benefit can be difficult to pinpoint.

This difficulty is reminiscent of a Copyright issue raised over 100 years ago. When approached with the question of whether an advertisement could be protected under copyright law in Bleistein v. Donaldson Lithographing Co., Justice Holmes pointed out that judges should not determine the worth of “pictorial illustrations”. His reasoning, which boils down to the tastes of any portion of the public should not be looked down upon. Following that logic, maybe Congress, the IRS or a court adjudicating the issue of public benefit should determine that if any portion of the public benefits from an organization that organization should be allowed to keep its tax exempt status.

 *  *  *

Note: This Article is being reprinted with the permission from Entertainment, Arts and Sports Law Journal, Fall 2016, vol. 27, no. 3, published by the New York State Bar Association, One Elk Street, Albany, New York, 12207

*About the Author: David Honig is a member of the Brooklyn Law School Class of 2015. While attending law school he was a member of the Brooklyn Law Incubator & Policy (BLIP) Clinic. He is admitted to New York and New Jersey state bars. From 2015 to 2016 he served as a postgraduate fellow at the Center for Art Law. David is currently pursuing an LL.M. in taxation from NYU Law.