Cuban exiles seek compensation for seized property
Florida families who lost their homes, farms, businesses or life savings in Cuba after Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution know they face slim prospects of ever recovering their property. But they have not lost all hope.
President Barack Obama’s attempt to restore normal U.S. relations with Cuba has prompted the two nations to confront long-simmering disputes over property seized by Castro’s communist government a half-century ago.
By law, the U.S. embargo of Cuba cannot be lifted until property claims filed by people who were American citizens at the time of seizure are somehow settled.
But for thousands of Cubans who fled to Florida leaving nearly everything they owned, the only hope is some form of compensation under Cuban law.
They include Leopoldo Aguilera, whose family flew to Fort Lauderdale in 1960 after their thriving cattle ranch and rice fields were confiscated at gunpoint by revolutionary soldiers.
“They wanted to scare the daylights out of people, and they did,” recalled Aguilera, now 81.
“I was extremely lucky that when they came in they didn’t catch me out in the field by myself. They came in screaming all kinds of accusations. They came in with guns. They took our combines and left us with ripe rice and no way to do our harvest.”
The Cuban government seized the family’s land, promising compensation in bonds that never materialized, he said.
fter taking part in an underground resistance movement in Havana, Aguilera joined his family in Fort Lauderdale, then moved to Miami and made several harrowing boat trips to the Cuban coast leading up to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
Like many exiles, he believes that those who lost property will not find justice until Castro and his brother, President Raul Castro, are no longer in power. “I will give up when I die,” he said.
He is among hundreds of thousands of Cubans — many still in Cuba — who lost homes, factories, apartment buildings or businesses.
Some former communist countries, including several in Eastern Europe, agreed to settle property claims to help heal wounds and restore good relations.
“They generally paid owners pennies on the dollar,” said Tania Mastrapa, a consultant in Miami and Washington whose family lost bank accounts and cattle ranches in Cuba. “If you are wise and you really want your country to move forward, you resolve these issues.”
Mastrapa, who advises property claimants around the world, faulted Obama for not demanding more from Cuban officials before moving toward normal relations. “Had that been put on the table as a must-have before we move forward, perhaps there would have been an agreement,” she said.
Former owners are still struggling to resign themselves to their loss decades after making their way in a new home.
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