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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