Americans have new hopes to reclaim property seized by Cuba 50 years ago
Alan Gomez, USA TODAY 7:44 p.m. EDT July 30, 2015
MIAMI — Across the country, thousands of Americans are storing fading
documents that represent a piece of Cuba taken from them by Fidel Castro
in the 1960s. They could be worth billions.
For U.S. companies such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Colgate-Palmolive and
Texaco, those papers list properties nationalized by the bearded Cuban’s
revolutionaries after they took control of the island. For movie studios
such as Universal and 20th Century Fox, they detail hundreds of
confiscated film reels.
In many cases, the documents have been passed down to children and
charities. They meticulously itemize homes, ranches, farms, vehicles,
cattle and horses seized by the government. A Holocaust memorial library
in New York City preserves a document listing paintings by Van Gogh,
Picasso, Monet and Renoir that were taken from the Havana apartment of
its founder, author Olga Lengyel.
In Miami Beach, a woman has stored away the stock certificates that
certify her father’s partial ownership in a manganese mine in eastern
Cuba. “I didn’t suspect anything would happen with this in my lifetime,”
said Holly Wallack, 69, whose father held a 30% stake in the Cuban mine.
“I thought maybe it was something for my children.”
That way of thinking quickly changed after President Obama’s surprise
announcement in December that the United States would re-establish
diplomatic relations with its longtime foe. Now that both countries have
reopened embassies in Washington and Havana, the chance of reclaiming
their property, or getting some kind of compensation, is finally possible.
Shortly after Castro’s takeover, the U.S. Justice Department established
a Foreign Claims Settlement Commission for American citizens and
companies whose properties were confiscated. The commission approved
5,913 claims worth $1.9 billion, roughly $7 billion today. The U.S.
State Department says it has approached the Cuban government to begin
“Reaching agreement on resolving outstanding claims is often a lengthy
process, but the department is committed to pursuing a resolution,” said
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Diplomacy Gonzalo Gallegos.
As in most negotiations with the Cubans, this one faces many obstacles.
For one thing, Cubans claim they are due a big payday from the U.S.
government that dwarfs the U.S. claims against Cuba. In 1999, a Cuban
court estimated that the U.S. embargo on Cuba had cost its citizens $181
The United States is sure to reject claims of that magnitude. Even so,
at a historic joint news conference in Washington by U.S. Secretary of
State John Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez to highlight
the new relationship, the Cuban diplomat made clear his country will
pursue them. “The U.S. government has recognized that the blockade
against Cuba is a wrong policy, causing isolation and bringing about
humanitarian damages and privations and deprivations to our people,”
Another problem: the $7 billion U.S. claim doesn’t include thousands of
Cuban Americans whose property was confiscated before they fled to the
USA. The U.S. State Department will negotiate only on behalf of people
who were U.S. citizens at the time of the confiscations; Cuban Americans
will have to negotiate on their own.
Nicolas Gutierrez says he represents more than 550 Cuban-American
families whose properties were taken. Though only a small fraction
actually want to reclaim their old homes, he said all deserve some form
“Many of these people are old, and their kids and grandkids aren’t
necessarily interested in going back,” he said. “But the owners should
be recognized. They should be able to decide if they want the property
back or get some compensation for it.”
There are also billions of dollars in court rulings handed down by
American judges against Cuba’s government for the death and injuries of
American citizens. Andrew Hall, a Miami attorney who specializes in
foreign property claims, won a nearly $3 billion ruling for a client
whose family was allegedly tortured by Cuban forces.
Hall said the U.S. government would face intense public pressure if it
successfully negotiated property claims but did not secure money for
American victims of Cuban terrorism. “A congressman doesn’t want to be
the guy that told American victims of terrorism, ‘Tough luck’ but
Americans who owned forfeited property, ‘You’re fine,’ ” Hall said.
“That would be a hard sell.”
Even if it were willing, there’s the question of whether Cuba can
afford to pay off massive debts to people in the USA. Matthew Aho, a New
York-based consultant with the Akerman law firm, said Cuba has settled
many of its property claims with countries such as Spain, France and
Canada, but those cases took years to resolve and resulted in meager
“Those claims have been settled for pennies on the dollar,” he said.
“Many of these countries decided a long time ago that full diplomatic
and commercial relations was in their national interest more than
holding out for some future resolution of the property claims.”
Aho said that could lead to arrangements where the monetary loss is
forgiven in exchange for access to the burgeoning Cuban market. Patrick
Fraizer, senior vice president of the New Orleans-based Pan-American
Life Insurance Group, said the company would consider that kind of
arrangement rather than pressing for the full $9.7 million worth of
property taken from it.
“If the opportunity presents itself, we certainly would not be opposed
to dealing with the Cuban government about other ways to resolve the
issue,” Fraizer said.
As the two sides begin negotiating the financial terms, some Americans
want something simpler.
Fred Swetland III spent so much of his childhood on the family’s ranch
on Cuba’s Isle of Pines that he calls himself “half-Cuban.” Castro’s
government seized the 9,510-acre ranch and its 800 head of cattle,
forcing the Swetland family to return to the USA.
Swetland, who runs a furniture store with his wife in Bradenton, Fla.,
says he misses his adopted home but has no desire to take it back. He’s
looked over Google Earth satellite images of the property and can’t
recognize anything. The house is gone. The river running through the
property has run dry. Instead, he simply wants some kind of compensation
and an acknowledgement from the Cuban government of what it did.
“In some way or another, I want revenge,” Swetland said. “I’m always
talking about the Isle of Pines. I’m always talking about my memories
there. I think this might give me closure.”
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