With Fidel Gone, Cubans Hope to Reclaim Assets

Louis E.V. Nevaer


From our content partner New America Media:


When Zenaida Pantaleón left Cuba, she and her husband, a Mexican citizen, lost her home and business.


Now 94, the great-grandmother, who uses a wheelchair, has no expectations of reclaiming those assets.


“That was a lifetime ago,” she says, hopeful that Cuba has a better future. “I have never returned, but my daughter went back 30 years ago. She says a doctor and his family are living in the home and have taken good care of it.”


Having spent half a century in Mexico, she raised her daughter and seen her grandchildren become adults with their own families.


Her serene attitude toward her losses as the Cuban Revolution became communist is not shared by all who have legal claims, or may have legal claims, to properties seized by the Cuban State.


“We believe that the absence of Fidel Castro will facilitate the adoption, by part of his brother, of economic and social policies of greater opening, assuming forward steps in negotiations with the U.S.,” an “Extraordinary Communique” from the 1898 CRP issued this month, stated.


The 1898 CRP, or 1898 Compañía de Recuperaciones Patrimonales, based in Spain, specializes in stating claims for individuals whose assets were seized by the Cuban State. They currently represent 280 families whose claims exceed $1.8 billion USD.


Do individuals have a claim?


Before that can be answered, it’s important to distinguish between companies and individuals. American companies that had their assets seized—from Citibank to Hilton Hotels—have long registered their losses with the appropriate authorities. Some, such as Bacardi Rum, have successfully sued—and won—for trademark violations.


But what of individuals, the people who lost their homes, their companies, their interests?


Zenaida Pantaleón’s husband, Rafael Romero, also owned a secretarial school, where, in the 1950s, young women learned typing, stenography, dictation, filing, and operating telex machines. That business was shut down and the building was seized. Currently it is being used as a Communist Party office.


For these individuals, it’s complicated. The Cuban Government’s official position is that everyone who left did so voluntarily and abandoned their property. The position is that the Cuban State has a responsibility to occupy abandoned property and make use of it for the benefit of the community.


In reality, however, the Cuban Government formally accepted a responsibility to reimburse individuals and companies whose properties and assets were seized.


Cuba, being pragmatic, wants to work with other countries for better relations. In fact, Cuba entered into an agreement with Spain in 1986 in which it established a fund to reimburse Cubans exiled in Spain for their assets seized in Cuba after the revolution. The 1986 agreement stipulated that Cuba would pay, over a period of 15 years, almost $40 million in compensation for seized assets to Cubans who are also Spanish citizens. It is an imperfect agreement—and some Cuban families were excluded by name from this agreement—but it marked the first time Cuba accepted an obligation to Cuban exiles.


As for claims against Cuba by U.S. citizens and corporations, the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, an independent agency at the Department of Justice, has almost 9,000 applications against Cuba on file. While most of these are by American corporations, including Coca-Cola, Citibank and Colgate-Palmolive, there are thousands of individuals who lost businesses, homes, and other properties after the revolution. Almost 6,000 of these claims had been certified as valid by 1971. The value, at the time, was $1.9 billion, which, with interest, is estimated to be $8 billion today.


With Fidel Castro’s death, there is renewed interest in asserting claims and wondering if the “next step” in improved U.S.-Cuba relations is the establishment of a mechanism for settling claims.


In Miami’s Little Havana—and swank Coral Gables—Cuban-Americans are rethinking what claims there might be.


“The original owners are either dead, or very old,” María Linero, whose family fled in 1960, says. “It’s unrealistic for someone who left Cuba in 1961 to go back and reclaim anything.”


What happened in Cuba—a revolution that seized assets of the vanquished and the bourgeois—is familiar enough. It also happened in East Germany, Nicaragua, China and Vietnam. In each of these cases there was a mechanism for processing claims and settling outstanding issues. In the case of East Germany, the German government took it upon itself to track down owners—or their heirs—and reach a settlement, an incredible task given the decades that had elapsed.


When the Sandinistas were voted out of power, the time was short enough to be able to process claims quickly. For Vietnamese overseas, there were stringent requirements for those who sought physical possession of their properties, and so far only a handful successfully reclaimed their lost properties. The Vietnam War ended in 1975 and over 1 million refugees fled overseas.


It’s unclear what process might work for the Cuban situation.


Zenaida Pantaleón’s grandchildren, who are adults and have their own families, have no illusion of reclaiming either their grandparents’ home or commercial building. “If you look at real estate prices back in the 1950s and 1960s, it wasn’t that much money,” Niurka Romero, Zenaida’s only child, now a grandmother, says. “And the government could say, ‘Your building is worth X, but you haven’t paid property taxes on it for 50 years, which are Y. And Y is greater than X.”


Zenaida Pantaleón agrees. “All I remember is that our telephone number ended in 8652,” she says.


And that brings us to the reference being used by Cuban-Americans—and their U.S.-born adult children—to jog memories, the telephone book.


The Cuban Revolution triumphed on January 1, 1959. That means that the previous year’s Havana telephone directory documents Havana before the revolution. It is now being used to confirm addresses of the tens of thousands of Cubans who were forced to flee.


And the searchable phone book is online.


What was Zenaida Pantaleón’s telephone number, anyway?


She was right, for there it is, on page 264 of the 1958 Havana Telephone Directory, Zenaida Pantaleón’s old telephone number, under her husband’s name, Rafael Romero, confirmed: 8-8652.


“That was a lifetime ago,” she says, with a smile.


She doesn’t have time to think about any of this. Her mind is on the birthday party for her great-granddaughter, the daughter of her Mexican grandson, an architect, and a French sociologist. The girl is turning 5.


Of the doctor and his family who now live in her former home in Cuba, she says: “God bless them and God bless Cuba.”


Author Bio:

NAM contributor Louis Nevaer is a New York-based author and economist. His books include New Business Opportunities in Mexico (Quorum Books, 1995), New Business Opportunities in Latin America (Quorum Books, 1996), NAFTA'S Second Decade: Assessing Opportunities in the Mexican and Canadian Markets (South-Western Publishing, 2004), and The Best of Havana (2016).


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