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Cuba-Curacao slavery lawsuit lacks facts

A federal judge needs more facts before deciding whether U.S. courts have jurisdiction over a lawsuit from three Cuban men, who were forced by Havana's communist government into virtual slavery to pay off a debt to a Curacao shipbuilding company.

Among the key issues is whether the arrangement was intended to circumvent the U.S. economic embargo by allowing Cuba to profit from work done in Curacao on American cruise and merchant vessels, Senior U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King said.

"That is one of the primary problems I'm having," King said at a hearing. "I believe that I'd be more comfortable if the record were developed more fully."

King postponed ruling on a motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed by Curacao Drydock Co. to give lawyers for the three Cuban men time to collect more evidence.

Curacao is a self-governing Dutch island in the Lesser Antilles off Venezuela's coast.

The three Cuban men, who all now live in Florida - Alberto Justo Rodriguez, Fernando Alonso Hernandez and Luis Alberto Casanova - claim they were among hundreds of men forced by Cuba to work at Curacao Drydock and threatened with prison or worse if they refused.

They say they worked 112-hour weeks at hard labor, were watched by armed Cuban guards and were forced to watch videotapes of long speeches by Cuban President Fidel Castro.

The arrangement was Cuba's way of paying off a debt for a drydock installation the company had built some years earlier near Havana, lawyers said.

The Cuban Interests Section, which represents the Castro government in Washington, did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Curacao Drydock attorney Stephanie Traband called the claims "wild allegations" and insisted the company had a legitimate labor contract with Cuba that had little connection to the United States and no intent to skirt the U.S. embargo. She said U.S. interests account for about 10 percent of the company's business.

"It is undisputed that the U.S. considers Cuba an enemy, but that is not the case with the rest of the world," Traband said. "The rest of the world does business with Cuba."

But Seth Miles, one of the Cuban plaintiffs' lawyers, said even the 10 percent figure could mean "tens of millions of dollars" in U.S. business for Curacao Drydock. He noted that the company has filed lawsuits in U.S. federal courts seven previous times seeking relief for various claims of its own.

"They can't have it both ways. They are engaged to a very high degree," Miles said.

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