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Recovering Properties in Cuba Still a Far Dream for Some Cuban-Americans

Some Cuban ex-pats and their descendants are hoping that new relations open up the door to reclaiming lost lands.
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When Pedro Menocal’s parents fled Cuba in 1961, Fidel Castro’s revolutionary forces had already confiscated their sugar mill, rice mill, and various multifamily buildings as well as their home.

So, growing up between Mexico City, Vienna, and Miami, Menocal always heard stories about the businesses his parents and grandparents worked so hard to build.

“I was always interested in recovering the properties,” Menocal said timidly on Thursday, explaining he feels awkward and almost materialistic admitting this. He is quick to point out he would never try to acquire a property with tenants.

As an attorney, Menocal has already organized documents such as deeds, titles, and certificates proving his relatives were the original owners of various properties.

Image: Pedro Menocal
Pedro Menocal, who is looking to recover properties in Cuba.Carmen Sesin

Cuban-Americans are generally not interested in recovering homes where they once lived in Cuba, but for those who owned large commercial properties, such as hotels or sugar mills, recovering their assets is somewhat appetizing.

And now that President Barack Obama has announced a shift in Cuba policy earlier this week, there has been a renewed interest among those looking to recover confiscated holdings, according to Nicolas Gutierrez, a U.S. representative for "1898" — a Barcelona-based company dedicated to represent the original owners of confiscated properties in Cuba.

"I’m not interested in doing anything if Cuba doesn’t change"

After the 1959 revolution, Castro’s expropriation campaign snatched homes, businesses, factories, and farms from Cubans as well as U.S. corporations that lost billions of dollars. Castro offered little restitution and the U.S. retaliated with an economic embargo against the island in 1962.

During the past 25 years, Gutierrez, who is well known in the Cuban community as an expert on confiscated properties, has helped about 500 Cuban exiles organize legal documents that identify them as the original owners of lands in Cuba.

He doesn’t think the new Cuba policy will help Cuban-Americans inch any closer to owning their former land or real estate. Gutierrez disagrees with Obama’s executive action but admitted, “we don’t know what will happen. It may open new opportunities.”

"We don’t know what will happen. It may open new opportunities"

Gutierrez, who is also president of the National Association of Sugar Mill Owners of Cuba, closely studied the fall of communism in Eastern European countries where the vast majority of people received either restitution or compensation. In many cases original home owners regained the title of their property with an agreement the current occupants could stay under rent control. Gutierrez is confident something similar will happen in Cuba. He says the government still has an intact registry of property owners before the revolution and there has never been a move to destroy the documents and issue new titles.

Expropriated properties are all too familiar for Gutierrez. His family lost about 100,000 acres of land mostly in the province of Cienfuegos where they owned two sugar mills, a rice mill, 15 cattle ranches, a coffee plantation, a bank, and an insurance company.

He’s not worried the thaw in US-Cuba relations may attract US businesses to work in previously owned properties. “Foreign investors tend to stay away from properties they know were owned previously,” he said, adding he’s ready to bring legal action against US companies who do business in those properties. The 1996 Helms-Burton Act makes US firms liable to lawsuits if they do business in Cuba on property confiscated from Cuban-Americans or US companies.

Several years ago Conchita Beltran, a Cuban exile in Miami, organized documentation in hopes of some day recovering 26 acres of sugar fields and five acres of tobacco fields that were in her family’s possession since 1890 and 1895 respectively.

She doesn’t feel Obama’s decision has helped her in any way to re-acquire her lost land and doesn’t see any positive signs in his decision. “I don’t see why he made such a betrayal to the exiles,” she said. The policy change has not deterred her and she wishes to return to her homeland once communism has fallen.

But for the vast majority of Cubans who did not own large swaths of land or businesses, the assets they lost decades ago are water under the bridge. Most have deep roots in the United States now and no desire to return to the island — and even less motivation to evict those who reside in their former homes, which are largely dilapidated.

Catering to a clientele looking to recover large holdings remains a niche business. Some attorneys say they are not even interested in helping others recover assets, saying they prefer to focus on human rights issues and political freedom for their homeland.

Rafael Penalver, an attorney in Miami, has been approached several times by clients seeking legal assistance in recovering property. He says he has never helped any of them and instead referred them to other attorneys.

“The Cuban exile community is interested in bringing freedom to their homelands not in recovering material assets,” explained Penalver who is also President of the San Carlos Institute — a Cuban heritage center founded in 1871 in Key West.

For Menocal and others recovering lost land comes with a price tag — they’re only interested in recovering property in a free and democratic Cuba. “I’m not interested in doing anything if Cuba doesn’t change,” Menocal said.