Americans cling to claims for seized property in Cuba
The smell of Cuban coffee drifts from the kitchen as Carolyn Chester digs through faded photos that fill boxes spread across the dining table.
Friends linked arm-in-arm on a Cuban beach.
Men in suits and women in evening gowns at a Havana nightclub.
And in almost every frame, an American man with a salt-and-pepper mustache and a raven-haired woman -- Chester's parents -- smiling at good fortune that would soon be snatched away.
"I always heard about Cuba ... and all this money that we lost and 'Maybe one day,' but I didn't understand it," Chester says.
Six decades later, that day might finally be nearing for Chester and others like her. To reach it, though, diplomacy will have to settle very old scores.
After Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, Cuba confiscated property belonging to thousands of American citizens and companies. Edmund and Enna Chester lost an 80-acre farm, thousands of dollars' worth of stock, and a Buick that might still be plying Havana's streets.
In 1996, Congress passed a law insisting Cuba pay for confiscated property, valued today at $7 billion, before lifting the U.S. embargo.
That went unmentioned in President Barack Obama's December announcement that the countries would resume diplomatic ties. Given Cuba's frail economy, experts say companies whose property was taken might settle for rights to do business there and move on.
But corporations don't cling to memories like families can. That's clear inside Chester's 832-square-foot bungalow, where her mother's gold-framed portrait watches over the yellowing property deed and worthless stock certificates -- reminders that Cuba before Castro is history.
The Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, a U.S. agency, has fielded 5,900 claims for confiscated Cuban property. The largest came from corporations, led by U.S.-owned Cuban Electric Company, for power plants valued at $268 million. But most came from individuals and families.
Experts differ on what to make of the American claims, protected by international law.
"You're now dealing in the realm of memory more than anything else," says Robert Muse, an attorney representing companies with claims.
But Mauricio Tamargo, commission chairman until 2010 and now a Washington attorney representing claimants, said confiscations inflicted lasting damage on families.
"Many of them never recovered financially," Tamargo says.
Edmund Chester died in 1975. Enna Chester's death in 2001 left her daughter with old home movies, dense paperwork and debts.
After moving to Omaha in 2006, Carolyn Chester got a job at Creighton University and showed co-workers her Cuba photos.
One day, a colleague mentioned that law school professors were researching claims for confiscated Cuban property. Hadn't Castro taken the Chesters' property, too?
In 2005, U.S. officials had commissioned a study of the claims and strategies for settling them. A group at Creighton won the job. Professors pored over old claims. Two flew to Cuba, searching for the properties.
Some were moldering, others gone.
But Cuba doesn't have the money to pay claims in full, law professor Michael Kelly says. In 2007, Creighton experts cautioned that claims might net just 3 cents on the dollar.
Claimants had long been told losses would be adjusted for inflation. When an investor offered to buy Chester's claim for a fraction of its original $489,000 value, she grew angry and began devoting hours to studying records.
In December, Chester listened as Obama spoke of rewriting policy "rooted in events that took place before most of us were born."
To Chester, the speech signaled the desire of politicians and corporations to look beyond the claims.
But Castro didn't merely take property, she says. He stole her parents' financial security, her father's health -- and her inheritance.
Fifty-six years later, she says, "I'm not going to let him take from me again."
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