Thorny property rights dispute looms over Cuba
Thu 21 Feb 2008, 15:24 GMT
By Tom Brown
MIAMI (Reuters) – A multibillion-dollar battle over property confiscated
after Cuba's 1959 revolution edged closer this week with the retirement
of veteran leader Fidel Castro, a leading lawyer for Cuban exiles believes.
"Historically, it's a milestone," Miami lawyer Nicolas Gutierrez told
He is handling nearly 400 claims against Cuba's government, mostly on
behalf of exiles who left their homeland in a hurry and had their
property seized after Castro's guerrillas entered Havana and took power
nearly half a century ago.
Castro's retirement this week raises hopes that the property claims will
finally be settled, Gutierrez said in an interview Wednesday. "We may
still be years away but we're closer to the end."
He says U.S. citizens and companies lost roughly $8 billion at today's
prices in confiscated property in Cuba and have 5,911 claims pending
with the U.S. government's Foreign Claims Settlement Commission.
The nationalized property of Cubans far exceeds that, however, and
Gutierrez said it could total as much as $200 billion. "You're talking
about some serious, serious value."
Around a quarter of his clients hired him after Castro temporarily
handed over power to his brother, Raul Castro, when he underwent
intestinal surgery in July 2006. And Gutierrez expects his business to
boom when there are finally clear signs of a democratic opening in Cuba.
"I'm basically a corporate, government relations lawyer, but I'm doing
more and more of this and some day it will explode and become a huge
practice," Gutierrez said.
He said only about six new clients had trickled into his office since
Tuesday, when the 81-year-old Castro announced that he would not return
as head of state, indicating that few expect rapid changes under his
likely successor, Raul Castro.
THREAT OF EVICTION
The threat of exiles returning to Cuba to claim confiscated property has
long helped bolster support for Castro's government among Cubans who
worry they could be forced out of homes they have occupied for decades.
But Gutierrez said many exiles who have remade their lives in Miami, or
elsewhere, were looking for compensation rather than repossession, and
that solutions could be reached after communism ends, the same way they
were in Eastern Europe.
"No one can be evicted from homes even if they're not theirs. The right
of possession has to be respected," he said.
Gutierrez, the 43-year-old son of Cuban exiles, was born in Costa Rica.
He has never been in his parent's homeland but says his family had about
100,000 acres of land there, including two sugar mills based near
Cienfuegos in the country's southeast, before it was expropriated by the
"The communists have kept meticulous records of the properties they
stole from the Cuban people," he said.
"You would think that they would have destroyed everything, burned
everything, just to sort of erase the past … They're almost sort of
giving us more legal rope to hang them with eventually." (Editing by
Michael Christie and Kieran Murray)