Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Problem of Property in U.S.-Cuban Relations

The BBC and a few other news outlets have picked up on recent statements by Raul Castro and U.S. State Department officials to suggest that there is a hint of rapprochement in the air. I doubt it, as the song and dance on both sides is a very old one. On the one hand, the U.S. says “maybe” to normalization, but only with political reform in Cuba. As the BBC reports:

Washington has renewed a four-year-old offer to lift its trade embargo on Cuba if Havana embraces democratic reforms. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon said the offer was "still on the table" if the Cuban government would
"begin a political opening".
And on the other side, Raul says normalization would be fine, but the U.S. can make no demands that interfere with Cuba’s sovereignty.
At this juncture, they should be very clear that it is not possible to achieve anything in Cuba with impositions and threats. On the contrary, we have always been disposed to normalize relations on an equal plane. What we do not accept is the arrogant and interventionist policy frequently assumed by the current
administration of that country.
Same dance, different day.

One of the most difficult issues in any effort at normalization, both practically and emotionally, is the question of property ownership. The U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission has registered property claims against the Cuban government worth between seven and eight billion dollars, both commercial and residential property. Many U.S. companies could potentially claim properties in Cuba, though with nearly fifty years of mergers and acquisitions, some of them would have to sue each other before they could sue Cuba. Many don’t want to bother, but some do (and wouldn’t you just know United Fruit would be one of them):
"There has always been a hope that, post-Castro, this claim would translate into something of value, and Chiquita's position has consistently been that we expect the claim to be honored," said Michael Mitchell, spokesman for Chiquita Brands International, the Cincinnati company that subsumed United Fruit.
Chiquita/UF’s claim is worth $87 million.

For many exiles, this is a central issue – they want their homes back. In almost every case, those homes have been occupied by other people for decades, people who the Cuban government has given property titles to. These homes are mostly subdivided and terribly dilapidated. They say smell has the strongest memories, and even though I’m sitting in Nashville, TN, I can smell the musty air typical of a Havana tenement right now. The exiles have their own memories, and their desires are quite understandable. But no Cuban government, whatever its makeup, is going to evict thousands of Cubans into the streets. Indeed, there are many exiles who recognize this, and even more of their children do. But there are enough who will insist on making claims that this issue could clog up the court system for years and slow down renewal of political and economic ties significantly.

When will you know that Havana and Washington are serious about rapprochement? When they start making serious moves to resolve the property claims issue.


binky said...

After one of my trips to Cuba, I had a long (like 20 hour) layover in Miami. I decided to visit family in the area (an hour north of Miami) over night. So, I dropped my film off at the local Eckerd drugs one hour place, and when I went back to pick them up, the first thing the guy behind the counter says to me is: "So, I see you were at Calle such-and-such and took a picture of my house."

In reality, though, the solution is going to have to be mostly monetary, for the reasons you outline above. Where those settlements might come from (and how willingly they are produced) is another matter entirely.

And... what do you think about the recent decision allowing Bacardi to start using the Havana Club name again?

Dr.T said...

I think that's just one more problem. It's not like Cuba is going to stop labeling their rum Havana Club. I guess they'll have to print "Hecho en Cuba" in 42 point or something!