Cuba After Castro: Can Exiles Reclaim Their Stake?

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Alberto Beguiristain was once ready to risk his life to regain what he lost in Cuba. In 1960, a year after Fidel Castro took power, the revolution confiscated Beguiristain's large Spanish colonial house and two sugar mills in Sagua la Grande, east of Havana. Beguiristain recalls the "restitution" Castro offered: "He said I could leave the island alive." So in 1961, working for the CIA, Beguiristain ran the first arms shipments from Florida to anti-Castro insurgents for their disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. He was captured and says he would have been executed had he not escaped.

Today Beguiristain, 72, who owns an insurance agency in Miami, still wants his Cuba property, which he values in the tens of millions of dollars. But after almost five decades, he hears that his house has been torn down and one of his mills dismantled. He concedes that when Castro dies, he probably won't be hopping into an armed speedboat to rescue his ancestral patrimony, as some exiles once threatened to do; instead he'll be retaining a high-powered attorney, hoping to broker some sort of compensation settlement from a transition government. "I want to take part in reviving Cuba's sugar industry," he says, "but I know it won't be easy to do even after Castro is gone."

Castro, who turns 80 August 13 and is, say official communiques, recovering from major intestinal surgery, last week handed provisional power to his younger brother and defense minister, Raul Castro. At first, Miami's politically potent Cuban exiles exulted in the streets of Little Havana. But when the reality sunk in that Fidel is most likely still alive — and that his communist dictatorship may well endure under Raul even if he's not — it also reminded many Cuban-Americans that their once ardent hopes of reclaiming confiscated property could be, as one Pentagon analyst says, "a pipe dream." A report last month by the Bush Administration's Commission For Assistance to a Free Cuba warns, "No issue will be more fraught with difficulty and complexity" during the post-Castro transition — even if democracy is eventually restored on the island.

That is no doubt just how the impish Fidel wanted it. His stunning and sometimes brutal expropriation campaign seized homes, businesses, farms and factories from tens of thousands of Cubans and scores of U.S. corporations, assets whose combined worth was $9 billion in 1960 and perhaps more than $50 billion today. (It was, in fact, the single biggest grab of U.S.-owned property in history.) When Fidel offered little if any restitution, the U.S. retaliated with an economic embargo against Cuba in 1962, which remains in place today.

But 44 years later, as Cuban-Americans continue to clutch yellowing deeds and titles, the likelihood of ever recovering the actual properties has dimmed like a Havana brownout. No one knows how many houses in Cuba are still claimed by exiles; but more than one family often occupies each home there, especially since housing construction in impoverished Cuba is light-years behind the island's population growth. If Cuban-Americans show up in even a democratized Cuba demanding those dwellings, they're likely to face the wrath of Cubans who tend to resent imperious exiles as much as they disdain Fidel. Says the Pentagon analyst, "The Cubans say, Screw you. You're not getting this property back.'" Florida Senator Mel Martinez, an exile whose grandfather's soda bottling company was confiscated, agrees that while post-Castro Cuba must "honor property rights, people should not be thrown out of homes."

That issue could be moot anyway. Cuban-Americans a generation ago may have waxed romantic about their gorgeous and breezy casas in Havana neighborhoods like Miramar. But today, says Elena Freyre, head of the Cuban-American Defense League in Miami, "90% of them no longer desire to go back and live there. Their roots are too deep in the U.S. And when they go back and see the sad reality of what Cuba is now, a lot of them will be on the first flight back to Miami."

Still, those exiles will clamor for some sort of compensation from a democratic transition government —payments the U.S., ironically, could end up bankrolling as a major aid donor. They could be similar, say U.S. officials, to reparations made in post-communist Eastern Europe, which in some cases let original home or building owners regain title to their property as long as they agreed to let the current occupants stay under a rent control agreement; and given Cuba's economic ruin, those who do regain industrial or commercial properties may be required to pump new investment into them.

Compensation is especially important to Cuban-Americans who lost large holdings — like the De la Camaras, whose patriarch Jose Ignacio was actually locked in a room by Che Guevara in 1960 and forced to sign over the assets of the oil company they co-directed. Today the family is trying to get the Bush Administration to pull the U.S. visas of execs from the European, Canadian and South American oil firms that operate on their property today, hoping to leverage some financial settlement from them. With billions of barrels of potential new Cuban crude reserves being discovered now, that effort has taken on a new urgency. "We're not seeking the whole cake," says the deceased Jose Ignacio de la Camara's son, Francisco, 74, of Miami. "Just our fair share of it."

Their only legal recourse is the 1996 Helms-Burton Act: it makes foreign firms liable, at the President's discretion, to U.S. lawsuits or forfeiture of U.S. visas if they do business in Cuba on property confiscated from Cuban-Americans or U.S. companies. But so far not even President Bush has been willing to let a Helms-Burton suit go forward, largely for fear of alienating allies like Spain that have big investments in Cuba. "The Administration just won't pull the trigger," says Nicolas Gutierrez, 42, a Cuban-American attorney in Miami who represents the De la Camaras, as well as other exile families in suits against foreign firms operating in Cuba on confiscated property — including one, the Sanchez-Hills, that owned oceanfront tracts in Cuba now occupied by luxury resorts run by European firms.

Some Cuba analysts wonder if Raul, who has signaled he wants better relations with the U.S., may be open to restitution if it could get the U.S. to lift the embargo. Gutierrez doubts it. "We'll probably have to go through four, five, six, seven incarnations of this regime before we see change," he says. If so, it could keep those exile speedboats floating in their Miami marinas for many more years, as unlikely to move as the Cubans currently living in properties confiscated almost half a century ago.

—With reporting by Douglas Waller/Washington and Siobhan Morrissey/Miami