By Jim Wooten | Saturday, June 23, 2007, 02:06 PM
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The Cubans stand ready to compensate American businesses for property
seized when Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, which could amount to
They stand ready, too, to pay $22 billion in debt to the former Soviet
Union, which propped up the Cuban economy for more than two decades,
ending 15 years ago.
The entire gross national product of Cuba in 2005 was $11.2 billion.
There are some caveats, though. Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, director of the
North American Division of the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs, notes
that 5,911 American claims have been recognized. She did not
specifically say — and I neglected to ask — whether the Cuban government
recognized them for payment. The claims for properties and businesses
were certified in the 1960s by the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission
of the United States. Ferreiro said Cuba has been "prevented" from
paying those claims by the embargo. But, she said, other international
claims filed by Canadian, Spanish, French businesses have been settled.
"We have compensated them all," she said.
Ah, but there's a catch.
The Russians, just now extending paltry sums of credit to Cuba, $355
million over 10 years, assert a claim to be repaid for the $22 billion
loaned by the former Soviet Union before it broke up in 1991. But, say
the Cubans, that withdrawal of Soviet support caused greater billions in
damages to the island, suggesting that it should be written off.
While acknowledging the 5,911 American claims, Ferreiro insists that the
American embargo has damaged the Cuban economy by $106 billion. Another
Cuban government official, during an informal conversation later,
stiffens noticeably and his tone hardens when discussing compensation
claims of Cuban Americans. "Never," he said. Those who fled to the
United States were Cuban citizens when their property was nationalized
and, like other Cubans, have no valid claim to restitution, he declares.
On these questions hinge the future of U.S.-Cuban relations after
Castro. Cuban assets in the United States were frozen in 1963 and bank
accounts that once totaled almost $270 million have been drained to pay
After almost half a century chances are remote that anybody will get
homes or businesses back — and, frankly, the cultures of Cuba and South
Florida are so dramatically different that it's hard to imagine any
American, save the armchair revolutionary guilt-ridden about the
abundant fruits of capitalism, could find satisfaction in the Cuban
Cuba has the transportation system and the lifestyle that Smart Growth
zealots dream about — except that ordinary people devote years of their
lives to waiting — waiting for hitched rides, waiting for overcrowded
buses, waiting and walking.
Few have cars, and for the ordinary Cuban, those are the relics of
pre-revolution Americana. Where else in the world is it possible to rent
a ride in a 1952 Cadillac convertible with an up-to-date Toyota engine?
Auto body filler and replacement parts designed and built by creative
mechanics preserve Cuba as a living museum of 1940s and '50s
automobiles. Mostly, though, people walk — one of the reasons, to be
sure, that life expectancy is 77.6 years. It's 78 in the United States.
Cuba, for all its potential appeal to tourists, will not be a country
that appeals to native-born Americans who've grown up accustomed to its
lifestyles and options. It's hard to imagine the young in today's Cuba
relating to old-line revolutionaries, and it's equally hard to imagine
people who have lived on food rations and inconveniences embracing South
"Transition," says Ferreiro, turning the questioner's description of the
process now begun over slowly in her reply, "in Cuba, that word doesn't
say anything. It is a continuation … a very organized process without
Pipe dreams abound. The dream that Cuban Americans can go back and
reclaim property that's now been occupied by two generations of Cubans.
The dream that American businesses will get fair and just compensation
for property taken. The dream that a totalitarian state can control a
nation of individuals, once they are inspired to dream.
* Jim Wooten is the associate editorial page editor. His column
appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays.