Cuban exiles seek compensation for seized property
Cuban exiles seek compensation for seized property
By William E. Gibson
– They wanted to scare the daylights out of people, and they did.’
– Some former communist countries settled property claims by giving
victims pennies on the dollar.
Florida families who lost their homes, farms, businesses or life savings
in Cuba after Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution know they face slim
prospects of ever recovering their property. But they have not lost all
President Barack Obama’s attempt to restore normal U.S. relations with
Cuba has prompted the two nations to confront long-simmering disputes
over property seized by Castro’s communist government a half-century ago.
By law, the U.S. embargo of Cuba cannot be lifted until property claims
filed by people who were American citizens at the time of seizure are
But for thousands of Cubans who fled to Florida leaving nearly
everything they owned, the only hope is some form of compensation under
They include Leopoldo Aguilera, whose family flew to Fort Lauderdale in
1960 after their thriving cattle ranch and rice fields were confiscated
at gunpoint by revolutionary soldiers.
“They wanted to scare the daylights out of people, and they did,”
recalled Aguilera, now 81.
“I was extremely lucky that when they came in they didn’t catch me out
in the field by myself. They came in screaming all kinds of accusations.
They came in with guns. They took our combines and left us with ripe
rice and no way to do our harvest.”
The Cuban government seized the family’s land, promising compensation in
bonds that never materialized, he said.
After taking part in an underground resistance movement in Havana,
Aguilera joined his family in Fort Lauderdale, then moved to Miami and
made several harrowing boat trips to the Cuban coast leading up to the
failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
Like many exiles, he believes that those who lost property will not find
justice until Castro and his brother, President Raul Castro, are no
longer in power. “I will give up when I die,” he said.
He is among hundreds of thousands of Cubans — many still in Cuba — who
lost homes, factories, apartment buildings or businesses.
Many others who were American citizens or companies at the time of
seizure had vacation homes, investments or businesses in Cuba. They hold
about 5,900 certified claims on property now worth an estimated $7 billion.
“Those claims must be resolved before the embargo can be dropped,” said
Patrick Borchers, a law professor at Creighton University who assessed
certified claims in a research report. “The practical problem is that
Cuba doesn’t have hard currency to pay those claims or any substantial
part of it.”
Advocates for former owners have floated proposals to compensate victims
by giving them a break on investments in Cuba or by providing them with
land or property equivalent to what they lost.
Some who won legal judgments against the Cuban government received money
from Cuban assets that had been frozen in the United States. And many
took advantage of an income tax break provided by the U.S. government in
the 1960s, which allowed them to deduct the value of property lost in Cuba.
“But often times, people didn’t have income here to deduct,” said Jose
Antonio Font, 67, of Doral.
He said his family arrived with some jewelry but no money after leaving
a house in Havana and a second home in the mountains now occupied by
Cuba’s minister of security. His father, who had built up a
construction-materials business in Cuba, found a job working 12 hours a
day in the freezer of a frozen-food wholesaler in Miami until he
suffered a massive stroke.
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“I have no problems of conscience reclaiming what my father worked for.
They don’t have the right to give away anybody’s property,” Font said
while calling for some form of compensation. “Anything that will attract
people who have certain skills to come back and exploit these assets and
make them productive again, I’m all for that.”
Some former communist countries, including several in Eastern Europe,
agreed to settle property claims to help heal wounds and restore good
“They generally paid owners pennies on the dollar,” said Tania Mastrapa,
a consultant in Miami and Washington whose family lost bank accounts and
cattle ranches in Cuba. “If you are wise and you really want your
country to move forward, you resolve these issues.”
Mastrapa, who advises property claimants around the world, faulted Obama
for not demanding more from Cuban officials before moving toward normal
relations. “Had that been put on the table as a must-have before we move
forward, perhaps there would have been an agreement,” she said.
Former owners are still struggling to resign themselves to their loss
decades after making their way in a new home.
“To me, this is my country. My children were born here. They have never
even been to Cuba,” said Anita Borges Gross, 66, an interior designer in
Miami. Her family left property she estimates at $3 million.
“I was only 10, but I had the feeling we were not going to come back any
time soon,” she said, her voice breaking. “We have moved here now, but
we still have some memories.”
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Source: Those who fled Cuba seek compensation for seized property – Sun