Cuban dictator Raul Castro deserves a Nobel Prize in political chutzpah: He is demanding reparations for the five-decade-old U.S. trade embargo of the island, neglecting to mention that it was imposed after Cuba confiscated up to $7 billion in U.S. properties and executed thousands of people whose relatives have yet to be compensated.
In his speech to the United Nations this week, Castro demanded “that our people be compensated for the human and economic damages that we are still suffering.” In a report to the U.N. General Assembly last year, Cuba claimed that such accumulated damages have reached $117 billion.
Castro’s act of bravado was reported matter-of-factly by most international media. I was in Mexico City when Castro made his U.N. speech, and newspapers carried big headlines about the Cuban ruler’s demand for U.S. economic reparations, failing to say even in passing that the U.S. trade sanctions had been imposed in response to Cuba’s expropriations of U.S. companies’ property.
According to the U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, a semi-independent U.S. Department of Justice agency, there are nearly 6,000 certified claims of expropriated U.S. properties in Cuba worth $1.9 billion, not counting interest. International lawyers say that with a 6 percent annual interest rate often used for decades-old claims, the total figure would reach about $7 billion.
Among the U.S. claims are those of nearly 900 huge U.S. companies, including a who’s who of corporate America: Office Depot (which after a series of corporate takeovers ended up with the claims of the Cuban Electric Company), ITT, Exxon, Texaco, Coca-Cola, Colgate-Palmolive, Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., Procter & Gamble, and General Motors. The remaining claimants are U.S. individuals who owned properties in Cuba.
The issue of Cuba’s compensation for its 1960s expropriations of U.S. firms’ property will become a big stumbling block in the ongoing honeymoon between President Barack Obama and the Castro regime. In his U.N. speech, Castro said U.S.-Cuba ties will not be fully normalized until the U.S. Congress lifts what’s left of the U.S. trade embargo. However, that’s unlikely to happen without settling the pending U.S. property claims.
Raul Valdes-Fauli, an attorney with the Fox Rothschild law firm in Miami who represents companies with claims in Cuba, says Cuban-American legislators in Congress “are using the compensation issue as their main excuse to impede the lifting of the U.S. embargo.”
He added, “We do business with totalitarian countries, such as China and Vietnam, despite their human-rights issues. What’s unique about Cuba are the unresolved property claims.”
Richard Feinberg, a former senior Clinton administration official who has authored a soon-to-be-released Brookings Institution study on U.S. property claims in Cuba, told me that Castro’s demand for U.S reparations for the trade embargo “is in part about domestic Cuban politics: They want to show to their people that they are not just rolling over to U.S. pressures, but they are also vigorously defending Cuban interests.”
Feinberg added, “But also, no doubt it’s a bargaining posture: The Cubans are seeking to reduce the overall compensation payments for expropriated U.S. properties, especially by slashing interest payments.”
My opinion: Castro’s U.N. speech would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that Cuba is a tragedy, in which a decrepit dictatorship (by the way, it’s hard to understand why most of the media don’t call it that, since there is no dictionary in the world that wouldn’t describe its political system that way) keeps condemning the Cuban people to be among the poorest and most oppressed in the hemisphere.
Sooner or later, if it wants the U.S. embargo to be lifted and get access to international loans and investments, Cuba will have to seriously face the issue of reparations to U.S. companies, much like East Germany and Vietnam did when they reinserted themselves into the global economy. In the meantime, Castro deserves a Nobel Prize in political hypocrisy.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Fla. 33172; email: [email protected].