BY CINDY GONZALEZ | Omaha World Herald staff writer
It’s not just any old family portrait. Definitely not to the six Cuba-born Gaston girls.
The framed image of rosy-cheeked Gastons growing up in their homeland is showcased in the Omaha homes of third-born Maria Luisa and youngest sister Maria Teresa.
While treasured, the photos are but small copies of a spectacular oil painting that to this day covers a wall in their childhood Havana home.
They left it and most everything else too large to lug when they fled after the revolution that put dictator Fidel Castro in power in 1959.
Still occupied by Castro supporters, the Gaston house, family sugar mill and other private property in Cuba became community-owned and government-controlled under communist rule.
While the Omaha Gastons had all but buried thoughts about reclaiming old belongings, the notion was revisited when a local university was awarded a federal grant to research the Cuban property rights controversy.
Maria Luisa Gaston holds a photograph of a large family oil painting that still hangs in her childhood home in Havana, Cuba. The Gaston family fled Cuba following the 1950s revolution that put Fidel Castro in power.
Creighton University School of Law has been awarded a $750,000 grant to study how, in a post-Castro Cuba, thousands of dispossessed claimants in America might be compensated for the loss of property that was nationalized.
Patrick Borchers, dean of the law school, said his team will explore new ways Cuba might repay, through money or other remedies, claimants who range from giant American corporations to small landowners.
A U.S. commission in the early 1970s certified 5,911 claims to Cuban property valued at more than $1.8 billion, not including interest.
Any solution would be contingent on a buy-in by the Cuban government that succeeds Castro.
“There’s no going back,” said Adolfo Franco of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which awarded the competitive grant. “But there is a way to make the past fair.”
Franco, also a Creighton law graduate, said he hopes the school’s bilateral U.S.-Cuba property claims tribunal would, along with other USAID projects, hasten the U.S. goal of a democratic Cuba. He said a peaceful transition depends on property rights resolutions that restore faith, foreign investment and economic growth under a post-Castro regime.
All the recent attention has stirred up mixed feelings in the Omaha Gaston women, now ages 60 and 47.
On one hand, they miss tangible pieces of their childhood.
There’s the two-story Havana house that was designed especially for their family. It still contains their father’s personal library of books and an outdoor sculpture of doves representing each daughter.
There’s the family mural painted by a popular Cuban artist just before the birth of Maria Teresa. And the now-defunct sugar mill and surrounding property that had been in the Gaston family since 1823.
“I’d love to have books, artifacts, things that can help me understand my family history better,” said Maria Teresa, who was 2 when she left.
Reclaiming such pieces is an easier task that wouldn’t necessarily have to wait for Castro to fall, Franco said. Land, buildings and other real estate present more complex political, legal and social problems.
On the other hand, the sisters said, they would hate to see a property settlement set back the Cuban families they’ve gotten to know on recent trips to their homeland.
Maria Luisa, a former nun who now recruits Hispanics to the College of St. Mary in Omaha, was the first of her sisters to return for a visit before the United States restricted travel to Cuba.
She recalled a 1998 trip and a knock on their childhood home. A woman about her age answered. Maria Luisa introduced herself. The lady yelled in Spanish to others in the area, “It’s one of the girls in the painting. One of the girls is here.”
The hostess and her visitor had opposing political and religious views. One occupied the house that the other had to leave. Yet they clicked.
“All of a sudden, 40 years had disappeared, and it was only two mothers talking about their children,” said Maria Luisa. “She told me, ‘I’ve lived with you for 38 years.’”
Maria Teresa, director of Creighton’s Center for Service and Justice, accompanied her sister on a 2004 visit.
They met families who had worked at the Ingenio Dolores sugar mill previously administered by their father and owned by him and his siblings. Besides the actual mill, the Omaha Gastons recalled that the property contained a church, two schools, a social plaza and housing for about 1,000 families.
“It was like a little town,” Maria Luisa said.
The Omaha Gastons said they recognize the anger many Cuban exiles still harbor over losing all they’d worked for. They understand the bitterness of seeing economic distress and lack of liberty in their native land.
They recall words of their now-deceased dad, Melchor: “I stopped dreaming when I left Cuba.”
But more than four decades have passed, they said, and the six Gaston girls have built careers and families in their adopted country. They said a post-revolution Cuba has made some advances in education and health care.
The Omaha Gastons went to last week’s ceremony where Creighton received the federal grant and said they were pleased at how the project team framed its goal of trying to help both exiles and Cubans.
“I hope the grant can lead to a true mutual benefit,” said Maria Teresa. “Not only to families that lost wealth, but for enrichment of the Cuban culture.”