Will the poorest Cubans whose properties were seized be indemnified? /
Cubanet, Jose Hugo Fernandez
Posted on December 26, 2014
Cubanet, José Hugo Fernández, Havana, 24 December 2014 – How many – and
which – private properties seized by the regime could be returned to
their owners or their descendants? Alternatively, how many
indemnifications could there be once the US embargo is finally lifted?
This topic has once again taken its place in our discussions, online and
on the ground. Once again, we are given to speculate about everything
pertaining to major enterprises, and North American and Cuban landowners.
Curiously, there is less talk about the small businesses. Those were the
ones whose owners worked hard all their lives, never suspecting the
disrespect and cruel coldness with which the Revolutionary government
would expropriate them. These entrepreneurs were forced to abandon their
establishments and take nothing but the clothes on their backs. Begging
the pardon of the large investors who saw their assets taken away, it
seems to me much more crucial to consider the tragedy of these small
business owners. I believe that now that “our” dictatorship is trying to
make a place for itself among “normal” governments, it should start with
the intent to mitigate (being that it cannot erase) this shameful
chapter in our history, by at least indemnifying the descendants of the
They must number in the hundreds of thousands, if one considers that
each town, each neighborhood, and often each street, hosted swarms of
small businesses owned by persons of modest means, who built them up
penny by penny with the sweat of their brow.
By way of illustration, it would perhaps suffice to cite the example of
the honest and hardworking business owners of Havana’s Chinatown – just
one case among millions, but one which helps to clarify the issue
because of being concentrated in a small area.
By 1959, a little more than a century had passed since the arrival of
the Chinese to Cuba as quasi-slaves. The only property owned by each and
all of them upon disembarking here was their family name – and even this
they had to give up. Even so, when Fidel Castro took power, Havana’s was
probably the most important Chinatown in the continent.
The neighborhood boasted its own Bank of China, with $10-million in
assets – a true fortune in those days. It had a network of import
businesses that directly brought in products from Asia to be used and
sold here. There was a Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, which was
connected to a considerable number of entrepreneurial associations, such
as the Union of Commercial Retailers. It would be exhausting to list the
vast number of dining establishments – some world-famous – and other
businesses providing the most diverse services, that were located in
The Chinese population of Havana operated its own health care system,
endowed with medical practices and laboratories, as well as a
fully-equipped clinic and patient pavilions, and a broad network of
pharmacies. Three independent newspapers, three radio stations, four
cinemas, a theater, an athletic club, a retirement home, a cemetery,
multiple societies and recreation centers – all of these composed the
cultural life of the neighborhood. In short, as I have indicated, the
list of assets would be too long. Just on one small block, on San
Nicolás Street, between Zanja and Dragones, one could see more
commercial activity than what is observed today in the whole
neighborhood. It goes without saying that the scene on that stretch of
San Nicolás is heartbreaking to see.
In 1960, Alfonso Chiong, president of the Chinese Colony and editor of
one of its newspapers (The Man-Set-Ya-Po), was informed by the regime
that he would have to resign his post. Upon refusing to do so, he
escaped to Miami to avoid being sent to jail. According to the newspaper
Avance Criollo*, when Chiong arrived at the Miami airport he carried, as
his only capital, five dollars in his pocket. Mario Chiu, secretary of
the Colony, had less luck – when he refused to resign, he was thrown
into the dungeons of La Cabaña prison.
The tragedy was already in progress. It was unstoppable and quite
possibly defining. Soon afterwards the flourishing Chinatown turned to
ruin, while the entire poor neighborhood found itself as lost,
vulnerable and frightened as had its ancestors when, a century before,
they arrived on our shores.
*Avance Criollo newspaper; Friday, November 18, 1960.
Translated by Alicia Barrequé Ellison
Source: Will the poorest Cubans whose properties were seized be
indemnified? / Cubanet, Jose Hugo Fernandez | Translating Cuba –