By TRACEY EATON | The Dallas Morning News
After the 1959 revolution, Cuba’s rebel government snatched thousands of properties abandoned by the rich.
“Thanks for the houses,” Fidel Castro said in 1960, announcing plans to turn some of Havana’s most exclusive homes into lodging for visiting VIPs.
Cuban exiles were furious and for years vowed to return to the island and reclaim their cherished homes. But today, the fervor is dying down, and more exiles are willing to forgive, if not forget.
“My house was right here,” said Mr. Tápanes, pointing to a reservoir on a satellite photo of his hometown. “It’s under water now. But the house doesn’t matter to me anymore. At this point in my life, I care more about freedom than an old house. I want the Cuban people to be free.”
The United States and Cuba have been at odds over freedom, democracy and practically everything else for 46 years. But the seized family homes bring out some of the deepest passions.
The exiles didn’t just lose their homes, they lost their homeland, said Nicolás Gutierrez Jr., a Florida lawyer whose family gave up cattle ranches and other enterprises when they left Cuba.
“There are few worse fates in the world,” he said. “It’s tough to start all over again.”
Early on, many exiles were convinced that the Castro government would fall and they would reclaim their homes. But as Mr. Castro endures, attitudes in Florida change.
A 1966 survey showed that 60 percent of exiles would return if they could. Today the number has dropped to 10 or 15 percent, said Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami.
Changing demographics play a role. Many exiles have died, lost interest or grown too old to go back. Others say the U.S. is home now.
But curiously, some of their children and grandchildren do want a piece of the old family estate.
Andy Gomez, senior fellow at the Miami institute, is from Havana’s La Víbora neighborhood. A few years ago, he returned to Cuba for a visit and went looking for his childhood home.
“It was difficult to maneuver through the streets because of the potholes,” he said. “But I recognized the house.”
He and his wife, Frances, don’t want it back. But their two daughters do, even though they’ve never set foot on the island.
“They want to have a piece of Cuban soil,” Mr. Gomez said.
Many second-generation Cubans see their family properties “as curious and interesting relics of the past,” said Joseph Scarpaci, a Virginia Tech urban affairs and planning professor who researches Cuba.
But they may not be interested in staying on the island once they get a taste of its gritty realities, Mr. Suchlicki said:
“People idealize Cuba. Then they go and see that the phone doesn’t work. You have to stand in line for food. So you say, the hell with it and go back to Miami.”
Silvia Wilhelm only wanted to visit her childhood home in Havana, not stay. And she was shocked to see who was living there: an American diplomat.
She jokingly told a State Department official that by paying rent for the home, the United States was “trafficking in stolen property,” breaking American laws banning business with Cuba.
“That’s horrible,” the official told her, offering to look into it. But Ms. Wilhelm, a Cuban-American activist, said that wasn’t necessary. She didn’t want to reclaim the home.
“I’ve cried about a lot of things in Cuba – its history, the winds of fate that change people’s lives. But I haven’t cried about property,” she said. “The Cubans have a terrible shortage of houses. They’re welcome to our family home.”
The Travieso-Diaz family owned a house in Luyano, a blue-collar Havana neighborhood. In 1969, the roof collapsed. Around that time, the last of the family left.
Matías Travieso-Diaz, a Cuban-American lawyer in Washington, said he has “absolutely no interest” in the home, “particularly if it involves evicting the people living there – last I heard there were 14 people living in the house.”
Castro loyalists play on fears that outsiders are bent on reclaiming their homes and kicking out the occupants. They tell people that if capitalism takes hold, slumlords will force them to pay exorbitant rates.
Rent payments were high before the revolution. Teachers making $85 a month typically paid $40 to $60 in rent. Today, many Cubans pay $1 a month or nothing at all.
The low rent and lack of property tax help explain why there’s so little money to fix up buildings.
Cuban officials say people will lose that if Americans take over.
Ana Rosa Menendez, 60, a Havana retiree, said she isn’t worried. And if exiles try taking her apartment, paid off after a decade of $2-a-month installments?
“They’d have to kill me,” she said.