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Posted June 17, 2008 by publisher in Cuban American Business

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By BILLY HOUSE | The Tampa Tribune

Estela Roberts and her family have always hoped they would be compensated one day for their property in Cuba seized after that country’s 1959 revolution.

Roberts, 62, whose family eventually relocated to Miami and then to Tampa, still remembers her family’s beautiful home in Havana, down to the “marble staircase with some ironwork.”

Along with a summer home in Tarara, a small sugar plantation, a bank and a tobacco store, the total value of the family’s confiscated property has been estimated to exceed $3 million.

Decades later, Roberts and her siblings have yet to receive a dime; frozen relations between the United States and Cuba have prevented their claim from being resolved.

Now, suddenly, they could become prime targets for speculators.

An orchestrated effort may be afoot to persuade people such as Roberts and companies in Florida and across the country to sell their decades-old claims, warns the U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission.

Mauricio Tamargo, head of the commission, said his agency had begun to receive inquiries last summer from some claimants—many with sizeable claims—saying they had been offered payments for those holdings.

It is not illegal to sell or purchase these claims, Tamargo said, but the purpose of this sudden activity remains unclear to the government. As a result, the commission has put out an alert for potential sellers and buyers to beware.

The warning comes as claimants and their descendants are losing faith that after nearly a half-century they will ever see their accounts settled between Washington and Havana.

There had been a glimmer of hope with Cuban President Fidel Castro’s departure from power.

But the commission, which oversees their claims, has said more recently that it “is not aware of any plans for, or any indication of, a settlement between the United States and Cuba, nor is the commission aware of any bilateral negotiations between the United States and Cuban governments regarding these claims.”

“I was always hoping. I always had faith. But now, I don’t know,” said Estela Roberts. Her father, Alexander, an American citizen, had taken over the tobacco company as an importer in Cuba for American cigarette companies from his own father, who had arrived on the island after World War I.

The Cuban government has paid lump sum amounts to settle outstanding property claims by other countries, including Canada, France, Spain and Sweden.

Tensions Stall Settlement Talks

But the diplomatic tensions with Cuba have prevented such talks about settling American claims.

In all, there are nearly 6,000 American claims registered and certified by the commission for confiscated personal and business property in Cuba, with an estimated total value of $6 billion.

To register, all claimants must have been U.S. citizens or businesses owned by U.S. citizens at the time of the confiscations.

Included in those are at least 1,700 Floridians, including dozens in the Tampa area, and 82 Florida-based corporations.

Tampa-based Lykes Bros. Inc., for example, has a claim for more than $3 million for the company’s large ranch in eastern Cuba, also appropriated by the Castro-led government.

Under U.S. law, settling the long-standing claims is one of the preconditions for eventually lifting the U.S.-Cuba embargo. But there remains no official step toward that.

So who is offering to buy some of these claims, and why?

Tamargo refused to discuss whether the commission has identified specific people or companies that may be seeking to buy Cuban claims.

But he emphasized that federal law prohibits anyone purchasing a Cuban claim from receiving more in settlement money than they paid the original owner. It is what federal officials call an “anti-speculation” measure.

The commission warns anyone considering a possible sale or purchase of their Cuban claim to seek legal counsel.

Although Tamargo won’t discuss who may be involved, Timothy Ashby, a Miami-based attorney, acknowledged that he’s now serving as a legal adviser for parties that are interested in acquiring or selling some of the claims.

He would not identify his clients, or even identify them as individuals or companies.

“I can only tell you that I’m serving as a legal adviser,” said Ashby, a former Commerce Department official.

Part of his work, said Ashby, is reviewing and reassessing the value of the American claims. He said that the total value placed on the seized property by the United States is much less than the totals according to Cuban tax records dating from 1962.

‘Pennies On The Dollar’

The upshot, he said, is that the best that most American claimants probably can get for their claims from Cuba is “almost certainly pennies on the dollar.” He also said Cubans are likely to seek to pay that compensation with bonds.

But Ashby explained there are investors or funds that trade in such sovereign government debt and might be willing to buy and combine a number of these claims as a way to gain some leverage of their own in future negotiations with Cuba.

Some of this could be in anticipation of doing business with Cuba once trade restrictions end and development on the island is expected to boom.

Whether this might defy the anti-speculation law is uncertain.

Neither Estela Roberts nor Lykes Bros. Chairman Howell Ferguson say they have been approached by would-be purchasers about their claims.

“I’ve heard no such rumblings,” Ferguson said.

Roberts said she doesn’t know what she would do if she were approached about a sale.

“But I’d sure like to know who’d be interested,” she said.

Reporter Billy House can be reached at (202) 662-7673 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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  1. Follow up post #1 added on June 17, 2008 by bernie with 199 total posts

    Let it be known that when all other countries settled their claims with CUBA, the USA totally refused to discuss any type of settlement.  Mainly iniatated by
    the big business community to refuse to negoiate with CUBA, ignoring the claims by the small individual who would have been happy to settle.  Terms for settlement are determined by international law, which the USA goverment had refused to adhere by????????????

  2. Follow up post #2 added on June 17, 2008 by abh with 244 total posts

    Yeah.  Sorry, they’re never gonna get their homes or plantations or whatever.  Nice try.

  3. Follow up post #3 added on June 17, 2008 by publisher with 3905 total posts

    Well, I’ve read that getting the property back is a real long shot and they might not even want it back. However, they will take the money or tax credits for opening a business or buying property when the time comes.

    So, whomever owns a Cuban property claim holds more of a negotiation point rather than a future piece.

    Cuba consulting services

  4. Follow up post #4 added on June 17, 2008 by abh with 244 total posts

    Maybe you’re right, I see what you’re saying.  All I can say is we’ll see.  I have to say though, clearly we are moving away from the Fidel era, but I still doubt that the Cuban government will be recognizing any property claims from U.S. citizens that were expropriated.  Just don’t see it happening.

  5. Follow up post #5 added on June 17, 2008 by publisher with 3905 total posts

    Not this Cuban government, no.

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  6. Follow up post #6 added on June 17, 2008 by arteest with 103 total posts

    My understanding is that many/most of the people who left Cuba during, and right after the revolución, were those with money. Those who stayed behind were mostly poor.  When I was in Cuba I heard that some/many(?) of the local people are afraid that if the embargo is lifted the Florida people will come back to Cuba and take whatever they say was theirs. I don’t know Cuba well enough to hazard a guess at what the result of that could be.

  7. Follow up post #7 added on June 18, 2008 by abh with 244 total posts

    Here’s the deal:
    The embargo will be chipped away, the Cuban government is slowly changing its course, the communists are not gonna go anytime soon and can’t be driven out as the island is too mobilized for any foreign threat (including that of Cuban exiles abroad) to be seriously proposed.  There’s tons of U.S. money that’s been waiting to go to Cuba for a long time.  However, the joke is on us because the island has already started to open up.  China, Venezuela, Brazil, Spain, Canada, now the European Union, etc. etc. will gain influence and take advantage of the U.S. hesitation.  This might be good for the Cuban people because they might retain more of their island.  The idea that exiles will come back and try to take their houses is one that is fading away as they die off.  As long as this is a threat the Cubans will exploit it and ensure that it does not happen.

  8. Follow up post #8 added on June 18, 2008 by manfredz with 464 total posts

    i just hope it goes a whole lot smoother than it did when the two Germanys reunited.  Many East Germans found themselves out fo the homes tehy’d been living in for decades as former owners from the got the courts to recognize their claims, totally disregarding what the reunification treaty said.
    The real fun however was that for some properties, the claimants were:
    the people who were living on the property
    the former East Germans who eitehr were booted out or fled
    the former owners, Nazis, who had their property seized by the communists
    the former owners, Jews (sadly mostly their heirs) who had their properties seized by the nazis.

    So sometimes you had up to 4 distinct claimants for the same assets.

  9. Follow up post #9 added on June 18, 2008 by abh with 244 total posts

    Here’s my thought process:
    The Cuban government will not be “taken down”.
    Nobody is going to come and take people’s houses because the Cuban government will protect the current occupants.
    I don’t see it going any other way.
    Now, if the embargo is lifted and foreigners are someday allowed to own Cuban property, I can imagine that some old Cuban families would try to buy back their places, but that’s about it.

  10. Follow up post #10 added on June 18, 2008 by manfredz with 464 total posts

    you could be right abh or it could go as did in Poland and Czeckoslovakia.  Those countries too were worried about Germans getting vocal about wanting the properties back that they owned before the germans were booted out after the war.
    As it turned out most couldnt have cared less; with some just wanting to go back and look at where they grew up.
    Fortunately the direction was set long before that when the German chancellor Willy Brandt was visiting Poland and was asked if he was going to be bringing up the subject of the lost properties.  His reply was “That train left the station long ago” .  May Americans and Cuban-Americans display the same wisdom.

  11. Follow up post #11 added on June 18, 2008 by abh with 244 total posts

    interesting perspective, i agree that it can be helpful looking at the history of other countries, I also hold the same hope that people realize the train has left the station.

  12. Follow up post #12 added on June 18, 2008 by manfredz with 464 total posts

    i find so many parallels in whats happening in Cuba and what happened in East Germany; yet also see so many differences.
    Was only briefly in Czeckoslovakia and Poland to compare then, but, since I was in West Berlin, went over to East Berlin and into East Germany almost daily watching it change.
    Coinidentally, I’m in process of digitizing my old hi8 camcorder recordings of that time so am reliving many of those moments. 
    Admit i dont see changes in Cuba on day-by-day basis since I’ve only been down there 4 times in last 18 months, and East Germans were a whole lot more open in voicing their opinions than Cubans I talk to (hae one good friedn but even with him we have very guarded political discussions - he with what he says and I try to be careful with my questions so I don’t draw him into areas he’d prefer not to get into (yet),.
    Still there are some interesting parallels.

  13. Follow up post #13 added on June 18, 2008 by arteest with 103 total posts

    My intuition tells me you both are right. The Castro brothers aren’t stupid and all of this has probably been keenly thought out. And, judging by how Cuba seems to be reaching out to and signing more agreements with more countries at present, it seems like you, abh, are on the right track. I like the idea of “China, Venezuela, Brazil, Spain, Canada, now the European Union, etc. etc. will gain influence and take advantage of the U.S. hesitation.  This might be good for the Cuban people because they might retain more of their island.” I would like to see Cubans living a better life on their own terms.

  14. Follow up post #14 added on June 19, 2008 by Curt

    Those people ABANDONED their property in Cuba, therefore they are not entitled to claims or anything else.

  15. Follow up post #15 added on June 19, 2008 by publisher with 3905 total posts

    Right. Kind of like the car owner who “abandons” his car during a car jacking.

    I think you are being a bit to easy on Fidel Castro.

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  16. Follow up post #16 added on June 19, 2008 by abh with 244 total posts

    But the point by Curt is clearly the point of the Cuban government.  The U.S. will be on thin ice (maybe not the correct metaphor) if they try to advance the argument that these people are legally entitled to properties from pre 1959 (or shortly thereafter).  Everyone needs to understand that these folks are still viewed as people who didn’t retain their Cuban rights.

  17. Follow up post #17 added on June 19, 2008 by publisher with 3905 total posts

    The US has made it clear that only US citizens at the time of seizure (abandonment) would be able to file any hardship claims.

    Cubans who left for the US and later became citizens have no claims in the US.

    Cuba consulting services

  18. Follow up post #18 added on June 19, 2008 by manfredz with 464 total posts

    wonder if those folks who left the US in 1776 during/after the revolution and came to canada (We call tehm United Empire Loyalists) were compensated by the US government for their losses ....

  19. Follow up post #19 added on June 19, 2008 by abh with 244 total posts

    In other words it’s mostly the sugar barons and other wealthy american families who are gonna try to recoup their losses.
    I appreciate the clarification Publisher.
    To me that makes it an even less likely possibility.  The Cuban government is not going to negotiate stuff that they believe was dealt with 50 years ago.  What they might negotiate are issues that have current relevance.

  20. Follow up post #20 added on July 02, 2008 by Percy

    ‘Just read the article and comments, the only thing that I’ll say is, Hey “Curt”
    do some research before making such ludicrous comments. You say abandoned,
    PLEASE! Those people fled, fearing for their lives. Many who were unable to get out, let their children leave the island with the help of the Catholic Church via Operation Peter Pan. Nothing was abandoned, it was confiscated. Look up how
    Communism works dude. If you had a large house, albeit one that you had worked very hard to get, you wouldn’t have been able to keep it. Everyone has to be “equal”, blah,blah,blah. It doesn’t work, because while the people are desperate for food, adequate housing… the top brass are all eating well, living in large air conditioned homes, and are driving, or being driven in cars. Research.

  21. Follow up post #21 added on July 02, 2008 by arteest with 103 total posts

    Percy, you are aware of what life was like for the “regular” Cuban before the revolution? That every night, in Havana, Meyer Lansky loaded up a plane with gambling money and sent it to Florida? There was much corruption and some of those people should have been “fearing for their lives.” IMHO

  22. Follow up post #22 added on July 05, 2008 by Yeyo with 411 total posts

    I would like to clarify to whoever suggested that the people simply abandoned their properties that this is completely wrong.

    The government took position of many properties by force and the rest were taken by the government when the rightful owners left Cuba.

    Even today when somebody leave Cuba the government still take all your positions (House, Car etc).

  23. Follow up post #23 added on July 08, 2008 by percy

    I just noticed the posting from Yeyo, and sure Yeyo, I realize there was corruption in Cuba. There is widespread corruption in every country in the world, including our own. Meyer Lansky? Please, I was referring to Cuban citizens, as well as U.S. citizens, who had worked hard in legitimate business, for everything that they had. If by “regular” Cubans you refer to the poor,imagine their lot today. Today “regular” Cubans are not even allowed to leave their country at will. For varied reasons, there are “regular” Cubans who are risking their lives to escape on makeshift rafts every day,which they are imprisoned for. Be it. Due to poverty, lack of freedom…  I have a big problem with not only Cuba, but any country whose citizens are not free to travel at will.

  24. Follow up post #24 added on July 08, 2008 by arteest with 103 total posts

    Corruption in Cuba was backed by the US government. And, I don’t have to imagine “their lot today.” I spend time there.

  25. Follow up post #25 added on January 10, 2011 by publisher with 3905 total posts

    We are starting to provide information about Cuban property claims at our Cuba Legal Services site.

    Cuba consulting services

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