When Arturo Gonzalez’s father fled Cuba half a century ago all he could take with him on the flight to Madrid was a suitcase with his clothes — and his glasses.
Militiamen ordered him to strip at the airport before confiscating his watch, ring and all other valuables, Gonzalez said.
“It was total humiliation,” he said. “Everything of value went to the revolution.”
It was 1964 and by then the new communist government of Fidel Castro had already confiscated all of the family’s property, including a farm in the eastern province of Las Tunas and several warehouses in Havana.
Gonzalez’s father died in 1981. Now Gonzalez, a 58-year-old business professor who left Cuba when he was a baby, and his sister are trying to get the property back or, at least, be compensated for the loss.
They are one of 260 Spanish families who lost properties in Cuba after Castro took power in 1959 whose claims for compensation are being represented by the 1898 Company, an investment fund.
The firm, set up in 2001, is in talks to represent over 400 other Spanish families as well.
The claimants see no chance of success as long as Cuba remains firmly in the grips of the repressive political system installed by Castro, who died last month at the age of 90.
But they believe the regime will eventually collapse and they will then be able to press their claims with a new democratic government that will be eager to settle the issue as it seeks much-needed foreign investment.
– ‘New Scenario’ –
Castro in 2008 handed over the reins to his 85-year-old brother Raul, who has said he will step aside in 2018. Many analysts question if the regime will be able to survive his retirement or death.
“When the regime will end we don’t know but the process has started,” said Jordi Cabarrocas, the founder and head of the 1898 Company.
“A new system that comes after a dictatorship needs to create a new scenario to draw investment. Returning seized property will reassure anyone who invests in Cuba that their property will be respected.”
The firm analysed 40 other similar cases in other nations such as in Eastern Europe over the past century and 90 percent of the time seized assets were recovered, Cabarrocas said.
Families that sign up with the 1898 Company do not pay any fees but the firm will keep 30 percent of whatever it recovers for its clients.
For now the company is helping its clients prove they owned properties in Cuba to be ready when the opportunity arises to press their claims.
While four hundred years of Spanish colonial rule ended in Cuba in 1898, Spaniards continued to predominate among the island’s wealthy landowners and shop owners at the time of the revolution.
“The Spanish were a prosperous community. They monopolised the retail sector,” said Consuelo Naranjo Orovio, a historian with the Spanish National Research Council.
No official estimate exists for the total value of assets seized from Spanish families.
Cabarrocas calculates the farms, warehouses and other assets seized from his company’s clients would be worth about $2.5 billion (2.34 billion euros) now.
– ‘The house is yours’ –
Madrid and Havana signed an agreement in 1986 in which Cuba agreed to pay $40 million in compensation for some seized assets — one-third in cash and the rest in goods like tobacco.
Richard Feinberg, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a veteran of posts in the White House who has written extensively about Cuba, said “such an accord normally closes the door on any future claimants”.
“It would require an extraordinary series of events for Spanish property claimants to have another bite at the apple,” he told AFP.
But the 1898 Company argues the 1986 agreement was not a final settlement.
The Spanish Supreme Court has since ruled that even those who received some partial compensation under that agreement did not give up their rights to seek further reparation under international law, it adds.
Many claimants say their main motivation is to seek justice for their families, not financial gain since they know seized properties are in bad shape or occupied by others now.
Jose Manuel Presol, who is seeking to recover the Havana apartment where he grew up, said he has no interest in kicking out the family that likely lives there now if he were to win the flat back.
The 63-year-old retired economist was born in Havana but came to Spain when his parents were expelled from Cuba in 1967 when he was 15.
“I would tell them: ‘Look I ask you for one thing. Let me catch a breeze on the veranda once in a while so I can recall my childhood. The house is yours’,” he said as his eyes welled with tears.