Attorneys Carlos Enriquez, left, Sergio Mendez, Jose I. Valdes, Luis E. Barreto and Enrique Zamora are on a rotating list of local lawyers who receive a special license to travel to Cuba to represent the rights of Cubans claiming inheritances in the United States. ROBERTO KOLTUN/EL NUEVO HERALD STAFF
BY WILFREDO CANCIO ISLA | El Nuevo Herald
Since 2003, Cuba and the United States have cooperated closely to settle lawsuits and cases of inheritance involving more than $50 million and hundreds of Cuban families on both sides of the Florida Straits.
The increasing paperwork and the transfer of inheritance money to Cubans on the island are generating an inevitable interaction by lawyers and legal aides in Miami with their counterparts at Bufete Internacional de la Habana, the International Law Bureau of Havana, and other government agencies.
Pragmatism has triumphed over political impediments. And the Cuban heirs on the island can now receive—in periodic remittances made through Western Union—their money, which until now had been frozen in the United States.
‘‘We’re in the presence of a peculiarity in U.S.-Cuba relations, because both parties are very interested in settling the litigation ahead,’’ said Cuban-American lawyer Enrique Zamora, who travels to Cuba every six weeks, representing about 20 cases. ``These are strictly familial—not political—affairs.’‘
Typically, the cases involve money, jewels, estates, insurance policies and stocks that belonged to Cubans who lived in the United States, which their heirs in Cuba cannot easily obtain or collect because of the embargo regulations.
In coordination with the 11th Judicial Circuit in Miami-Dade, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, established more than a decade ago a standard procedure to identify and process the cases of succession that involve Cuban heirs on the island.
‘‘The problem we face in these cases is how to distribute goods and money belonging to persons who reside in countries considered to be enemies of the United States,’’ said Administrative Judge Maria M. Korvick, who has headed the Division of Estates and Guardianships in the Miami-Dade Circuit since 1998.
‘‘We act to protect the system of state and federal laws without ignoring the heirs who live in Cuba,’’ said Korvick, who was born in Cuba and came to the United States as a child.
According to lawyers and experts, Judge Korvick’s leadership has been decisive in the consolidation of the legal procedures. Cases are assigned according to a rotating list of local lawyers who receive a special OFAC license to travel to Cuba and represent the rights of Cubans claiming inheritances in the United States.
Other Florida counties, including Broward, have followed the Miami-Dade model to create their own ‘‘guardian ad litem’’ programs for these particular litigations.
In addition to Florida, home to approximately one million Cubans, similar legal cases are ongoing in New York, New Jersey and California.
Along with Zamora, four other Cuban-American lawyers appear on the Judicial Circuit’s rotating list: José I. Valdés, Luis E. Barreto, Sergio Méndez and Carlos Enríquez. The latter was a pioneer in the project to establish contacts in Cuba for testamentary dealings back in the 1980s.
Since then, Enríquez has handled about 1,000 cases involving estate adjudications totaling $15 million. He is followed by Zamora, who began to represent heirs in Cuba in 1994; he has handled 250 cases involving $20 million in adjudications.
There is a total of 1,500 cases (accumulated or pending adjudication) and $58.1 million frozen in U.S. banks. That sum is part of $196.1 million blocked from the Cuban government by the 1963 Regulations for the Control of Cuban Assets.
The amount of money currently held from Cuba was revealed in September in the Treasury Department’s annual report on the assets of terrorist states, known as the Terrorist Assets Report. It represents a decline of $72.2 million compared with the previous year, when the sum was reported as $268.3 million.
The money from each inheritance left to a resident on the island is deposited in a Cuban blocked account, as the embargo requires.
OFAC officials declined to comment about the money frozen from Cuban individuals and the remittances program now in effect.
Nevertheless, the situation is changing quietly. In the past four years, the process has accelerated with the institution of less-strict rules by the OFAC and the intervention of the Cuban authorities.
In 2003, the Cuban government formally involved the Bufete Internacional de la Habana and its offices throughout the island in the legal proceedings and in expediting visas for the American lawyers.
Since then, Cuban lawyers have participated in the interrogation of potential heirs and witnesses. They also make their conference rooms available to their visiting colleagues.
The Cuban government recently revised the requirements for legal interrogations by foreigners. The depositions must be made in the presence of at least one Cuban lawyer; the witnesses must be represented by a lawyer who is affiliated to the Cuban bufete (law firm) system.
‘‘Our treatment by Cuba has been respectful, cooperative and professional. I cannot say otherwise,’’ said lawyer Jose Valdes, who began to travel to the island for testamentary dealings in 1999. He has represented 53 people whose frozen assets add up to a total of $3.3 million.
Until that time, Treasury Department regulations forbade heirs to access the amount of their inheritances in U.S. banks unless they emigrated from Cuba and settled permanently in the United States or in a third country not considered an enemy of the U.S.
Beginning in 2004, the OFAC-accredited lawyers began to send to Cuba the remittances of those heirs who signed an affidavit authorizing a periodic withdrawal of money from their CBAs.
Other beneficiaries prefer to keep their accounts intact, hoping to leave Cuba at a future date.
However, before adjudicating the money, the lawyers must untie an intricate legal knot.
When an estate file is opened, the first thing to be determined is if the deceased left a will in the United States or in Cuba and who his (or her) beneficiaries are.
If a last will does not exist, the lawyer assigned to the case must locate the deceased’s probable heirs in Cuba.
‘‘Sometimes, the search for heirs takes [the lawyers] to the most remote Cuban villages,’’ Korvick said.
Trips to Cuba to do research on estates, to locate wills or take sworn depositions cost thousands of dollars. That cost is deducted from the amount of the inheritance at issue.
Part of the cost goes to Cuban institutions and organizations for the issuance and notarization of legal documents, the use of working space and housing for the visiting lawyers.
Each lawyer charges between $200 and $300 per hour. Sworn statements are videotaped by Kenneth Stern of Custom Video of Miami, who receives $80 per hour; taken down by stenographer Thomas J. Kresse of Kresse & Associates, who is paid between $75 and $100 per hour, and translated by Vicente de la Vega of the Miami firm Precision Translating, who receives $125 per hour.
Air fare, the entry fee to Cuba and hotel accommodations are paid for by the lawyer assigned to each case. According to OFAC restrictions, the Cuban lawyers on the island are not paid by the United States.
Once the distribution of estates and inheritances is made, the heirs living in the United States receive their portion under judicial supervision. The Cuban heirs’ money goes to a CBA in an American bank, which must report yearly to the OFAC about the balance and transactions on the account. The account itself may not be transferred to anyone who is not an heir.
Every three months, the Bufete Internacional in Havana asks the guardian lawyers to report the names and addresses of the Cuban heirs, their share of the inheritance, the remittances made and the remaining balances in the blocked accounts.
Valdes believes that the flow of normal relations in this field ``is mutually beneficial. . . . United States courts cannot afford to be congested with cases that remain open for an indefinite period, withholding the inheritances that belong to residents of this country.’‘
‘‘Besides, every estate that is frozen ceases to generate taxes for Uncle Sam,’’ he added.
The process is also advantageous to Cuba, because the deserving heirs receive their money and the government collects fees for services rendered.
Judge Korvick agrees that the freezing of inheritance cases would be counterproductive, even for the transparency of the American system of property ownership.
‘‘If estates and inheritances are not duly distributed, the property deeds would not offer sufficient guarantees to the investors and the security of the U.S. system would be damaged,’’ she said.
The unstoppable flow of Cuban immigrants to the United States in the past three decades will inevitably lead to an increase in the number of legal cases involving potential heirs who remained in Cuba, experts believe.
‘‘There are several generations of Cubans living in Miami who are leaving their possessions to their relatives,’’ Zamora said. ``A lot of people are unaware of this service. And I believe that in the next several years, the number of cases is going to skyrocket.’‘
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