Monday, May 25, 2009

Property Compensation Claims

US-Cuba thaw may mean compensation for lost assets
Created 25/05/2009 - 16:45


After 47 years, Mario Sanchez's memory of the house near the Havana Zoo where he was born has faded.But he has not forgotten the address, and can look at the roof using satellite imaging on his computer at his Florida home, 370km away.

"My hope and dream is that one day I would be able to have my property returned to me," Sanchez, a computer science professor at Miami Dade Community College, said in a telephone interview.

With the prospect of improved relations between the United States and Cuba, Sanchez believes that day may no longer be so far off.

He's not alone. Some US companies and Cuban-Americans still hope to recover ownership or compensation for what they lost in the early 1960s, when Fidel Castro nationalized factories, farms, hotels, office towers, department stores, mills, mines, farmland and homes - the largest seizure of American-owned property in history.

The Obama administration's overtures to Havana, its easing of some facets of the 47-year-old trade embargo, and the Cuban government's willingness to discuss improved relations have kindled hope for settlements.

"It's early yet, but I'm optimistic," said Robert Muse, a Washington attorney who represents two of the largest claimants to certify lost property with the US Department of Justice.

"Any warming trend is positive because these claims can't be resolved in absence of rapprochement with Cuba."

Muse, who asked that his clients not be named in print, said international law recognizes the right of foreign owners to seek compensation for seized property.

In 1972, nearly 6000 American companies and individuals who were US citizens at the time their property was confiscated filed claims with the US government for property then worth more than $US1.8 billion and estimated to now be worth around $US7 billion.

Claimants include General Electric, General Motors, Ford, Sears, Coke, Pepsi, Citicorp and Goodyear. Texaco lost its refinery in the eastern city of Santiago. ITT was stripped of its stake in Cuba's phone company.

None of the numerous US companies contacted for this story would comment on claims, citing legal constraints.

But Muse said the "claims remain assets on the books of the companies."

The 10 largest claimants are US companies accounting for nearly $US1 billion of the original losses, he said.

But they are unlikely to want their assets back after years of neglect, and may settle instead for receiving special incentives to invest in the island if controls are lifted, Muse said.

"Companies are willing to be creative and innovative in settling," he said in a telephone interview.

Cuba also expropriated property belonging to hundreds of non-US firms and has signed compensation agreements with Canada, Switzerland, France, Great Britain, Spain and Mexico.

The US negotiated settlements for American property lost to Vietnam's communist government, to Iran after its Islamic revolution and to Eastern European countries that went communist after World War 2.

But not Cuba. In 1960 Castro's government offered compensation in bonds or sugar exports to the US but American authorities say that would have required their country to buy huge amounts of sugar at inflated prices.

A year later the US imposed the embargo and froze Cuban government accounts in American banks. At the end of 2005, the US Treasury Department said $US268.3 million remained, though how much is still there today is unclear.

Some of that money went to families who sued Cuba in American courts under a 1996 law allowing victims of terrorist groups or countries that sponsor them to seek damages.

Cuba has long said it is willing to compensate US interests but wants restitution for the embargo's economic damage, which it calculates at $US93 billion.

The Cuban government is less willing to pay for property lost by Cubans who later became US citizens.

That group includes Sanchez, the computer science professor, who was smuggled off the island at age 6 and didn't see his parents for six more years.

His family's land, home and beach house were seized when officials forced his father, the owner of a transportation company, to work for the new Castro government as a logistical consultant.

Now 53, Sanchez holds deeds to both homes and can still reel off his exact address in Havana's Nuevo Vedado neighbourhood: "Oeste 818 between Conill and Santa Ana Streets."

From what he sees on the satellite images, "The roof looks good." "I would have no problem living there," he said.

But some say it's impossible to turn back the clock.

"Finding out what belongs to who is going to be very hard. Too hard," said Clara Del Valle, 65, a descendant of the Bacardi family whose rum empire had to leave Cuba after Castro took over.

She is vice chairwoman of the Cuban-American National Foundation, an anti-Castro group.

Sanchez's house is an example of the difficulties that may lie ahead.

It looks unchanged from the fashionable one-story home in a black-and-white 1950s photo that Sanchez has, but is occupied by 80-year-old Iliana Paz and her daughter and son-in-law.

"This is my world," Paz said.

A retired attendant at a military mess hall, Paz said she lived in a decrepit apartment building until she moved into the house 42 years ago.

She said Sanchez's mother asked her to care for it until her return. She gave the mother's full name without prompting, saying that this proved she was in the home legally.

But Sanchez said he has never heard of Paz and that his mother, now deceased, never said anything about such instructions.

Also, Paz's account has inconsistencies, and neighbours suggest the house is controlled by the government, which decides who can live there.

Sanchez said he doesn't want to displace anyone.

"How do you deal with people who have been living in your house for 40 years?" he asked. "Do you throw them out on the street? You can't do it." Paz said she won't let him.

"Nothing can make me move," she vowed. "Nothing, nothing, nothing."
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