Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Cuba's $6B debt to Americans for seized properties hangs over US talks

Cuba's $6B debt to Americans for seized properties hangs over US talks
By Kelley Beaucar Vlahos Published January 27, 2015 FoxNews.com

A $6 billion sticking point could create headaches for the U.S.-Cuba talks.

Though concerns over human rights, press freedoms and U.S. fugitives
living free on the island have dominated debate over the Obama
administration's negotiations on restoring diplomatic ties, the Castro
regime also still owes Americans that eye-popping sum.

The $6 billion figure represents the value of all the assets seized from
thousands of U.S. citizens and businesses after the Cuban revolution in
1959. With the United States pressing forward on normalizing relations
with the communist country, some say the talks must resolve these claims.

"The administration has not provided details about how it will hold the
Castro regime to account for the more than $6 billion in outstanding
claims by American citizens and businesses for properties confiscated by
the Castros," Sen. Robert Menendez, D-Fla., top Democrat on the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee, wrote in a letter to Secretary of State
John Kerry ahead of historic talks in Havana last week.

Menendez urged the U.S. to "prioritize the interests of American
citizens and businesses that have suffered at the hands of the Castro
regime" before moving ahead with "additional economic and political

Beginning with Fidel Castro's takeover of the Cuban government in 1959,
the communist regime nationalized all of Cuba's utilities and industry,
and systematically confiscated private lands to redistribute -- under
state control -- to the Cuban population.

The mass seizure without proper compensation led in part to the U.S.
trade embargo.

Over nearly 6,000 claims by American citizens and corporations have been
certified by the U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, totaling
$1.9 billion.

Today, with interest and in today's dollars, that amount is close to $6

U.S. sugar, mineral, telephone and electric company losses were heavy.
Oil refineries were taken from energy giants like Texaco and Exxon.
Coca-Cola was forced to leave bottling plants behind. Goodyear and
Firestone lost tire factories, and major chains like Hilton handed over
once-profitable real estate for nothing in return.

Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, after leading the talks
in Havana last week, did not mention the U.S. property claims at a press
briefing. The department also did not respond to FoxNews.com's requests
for comment on the matter. In Dec. 18 remarks, however, Jacobson said,
"registered claims against the Cuban government" would be part of the

She also noted Cuban claims of monetary losses due to the 50-year-old
U.S. embargo.

"We do not believe those things would be resolved before diplomatic
relations would be restored, but we do believe that they would be part
of the conversation," she said. "So this is a process, and it will get
started right away, but there's no real timeline of knowing when each
part of it will be completed."

The billions are owed, in part, to an array of major companies.

U.S. banks ranging from First National City Bank (which became Citibank)
to Chase Manhattan lost millions in assets. According to the list of
claimants, the Brothers of the Order of Hermits of St. Augustine even
lost $7.8 million in real estate when they were expelled from the island.

According to a government study commissioned in 2007, however, some 88
percent of the claimants are individual American property and asset
owners, many of whom would probably like to see some sort of
compensation out of the diplomatic deal-making.

"I think this is a significant issue and it has more resonance today
than it would have had 20 years ago," as nationalization has seen a
resurgence throughout Latin America in recent years, said Robert Muse, a
Washington, D.C., attorney who has represented corporate clients whose
assets were seized. "You have to take seriously the notion that a
government must support their companies when their [property] is
expropriated. You have to have some consistency on that."

Experts who spoke to FoxNews.com agree that fully compensating everyone
on the list would be a complicated, if not impossible, endeavor.

First, the Cuban government, even if it did agree in spirit to pay,
probably would not be able to afford it.

Some individual claimants may be long dead. Further, some of the
original corporations no longer exist, thanks to mergers, buyouts, and
bankruptcies over the years.

Such is the case with the Cuban Electric Company, which has the largest
claim -- $267.6 million in corporate assets (1960 dollars). The company
was part of the paper and pulp manufacturer, Boise Cascade Company
(which also has a claim for $11.7 million), at the time of the seizures.

But Boise Cascade has since spun off and the part of it that held a
subsidiary with a majority stake in Cuban Electric became Office Max --
which later merged with Office Depot in 2013. Company officials reached
by FoxNews.com had no comment on the original Cuban Electric claims.

Muse and others, like Cuba analyst Elizabeth Newhouse at the Center for
International Policy, say that companies that still have an active
interest in getting compensated might agree to more creative terms --
whether it be for less money, or tax breaks or other incentives on
future investments if and when the U.S. embargo is lifted.

"My sense is that some corporations are more interested in having a
leg-up in any trade arrangements than they are in getting their money
back," Newhouse said.

Thomas J. Herzfeld, who heads the 20-year-old Herzfeld Caribbean Basin
Fund which trades shares of firms that would have an interest in Cuba if
the embargo is lifted, said his life-long goal has been "to rebuild
Cuba." He has approached claimants about taking their claims in exchange
for investment shares. He said his fund is "well-prepared" for when
normalization resumes.

But others warn about popping the corks too soon, particularly if the
Castro regime is unwilling to take the compensation seriously. According
to the Helms-Burton Act, which enforces the sanctions, the embargo
cannot be lifted until there is "demonstrable progress underway" in
compensating Americans for their lost property. (Congress also would
have to vote to lift the embargo.)

"This is an issue where they are going to have to put their heads
together and figure out how to resolve it," Newhouse said. "I think
everyone wants to see it resolved."

Jacobson, at the close of last week's opening talks, said there was some
progress on opening up embassies, but there continue to be "areas of
deep disagreement," particularly on Cuban human rights and fugitives
from U.S. justice in Cuba.

"Let me conclude," said Jacobson, the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat to
visit Cuba in more than three decades, "it was just a first step."

Source: Cuba's $6B debt to Americans for seized properties hangs over US
talks | Fox News -

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