Saturday, December 9, 2006
I participated in a conference yesterday at Yale on the political future of Cuba. Panels covered the situation in Cuba today as well as the likely future of US policy towards Cuba after Castro's death. I spoke on the property disputes that might surface in a transitional Cuban society and the possible responses of a post-Castro government.
About 6000 people who were US citizens at the time of Castro's ascension to power in 1959 have registered claims with the U.S. government for property they lost during the first years of the Cuban revolution. Their claims have an estimated value of $8 billion. In addition, there are hundreds of thousands of Cubans who lost property under the Castro government. Large agricultural land-owners had their properties nationalized under a series of agrarian reforms. Landlords lost property occupied by tenants, who were given the right to purchase the properties at low, fixed prices. Mortgages were canceled. And anyone who fled the island had their property confiscated and redistributed. By the end of 1968, virtually all private enterprise on the island had been confiscated, including 57,000 small and medium-sized, and mostly Cuban-owned, businesses. Estimates of the possible property claims by Cuban-Americans range from $25 billion up to nearly $100 billion, although the latter figure strikes me as wildly inflated (it's several times larger than the Cuban GDP).
Many Cuban-Americans are waiting for full property restitution, a hope that has only been encouraged by the experience of some of the former Communist states of Eastern Europe. Germany, for example, embarked on an ambitious program of property restitution (that is, the actual restoration of possession of expropriated properties -- not simply compensation) upon its reunification. Restitution was also implemented in Bulgaria, the Baltics and the Czech Republic. With news of Fidel's illness, some Cubans in Miami are dusting off their files and getting ready to press their claims with the hope of reclaiming ownership of property they lost.
While I can sympathize with the desire to reclaim lost property -- my family lost a modest but wonderful home in Centro Habana and a small weekend farm outside Havana when they fled Cuba in the early 1960s after my father did a stint in a Cuban jail for supposedly possessing anti-Castro propaganda -- but the attempt to actually press these claims would seem to me to be sheer folly. The fact is, nearly 50 years have passed since my family last lived in that home in Havana. The people in whose care we left the home traded it with another family about a decade ago, and who knows how many times it's changed hands since then. It's someone else's home now, and in the meantime, my family -- although they arrived with nothing (one hand in front and one hand behind, as the Cuban saying goes) has done pretty well in the United States. It's not at all clear to me how justice would be done by my dispossessing someone who has suffered fifty years of tyranny and diminished economic opportunity under a one-party Communist state. And, of course, there's the question of the propriety of using the 1959 allocation of property as a baseline for restitution, since that allocation was itself influenced by the Batista government -- no model of democracy and respect for human rights -- years of North American intervention in the Cuban economy and political system, and centuries of slavery.
More pragmatically, if even half of all the Cuban-Americans who lost property return to Cuba and file claims to have property restored, virtually all the property on the island will be locked up in litigation for years to come, with predictable consequences for the ability of a post-Castro government to attract foreign investment and grow the economy. After all, adjudicating these claims will be no small administrative task, particularly since the Cuban government has failed to update the property records for the last 50 years.
So far-fetched is the idea of full property restitution (or even compensation) in a post-Castro Cuba, it strikes me that any attempt to implement such a scheme is either hopelessly foolish or outright dishonest. The resources simply don't exist to accomplish the task.
The question of how to heal the wounds between Cuba and the exile community is a real one. Restitution of property, however, is not the answer. It will just create new wounds and leave a post-Castro Cuba on a dubious footing for future development.
This is not to say that restitution for long past property harms is never appropriate. I have some sympathy with Native American land claims and with claims by African Americans for reparations for slavery. But I think that sympathy is due in large part to the fact that those communities continue to suffer the consequences of their losses in a way that is less true of Cuban-Americans, who are generally much better off than the people currently occupying the property they formerly owned. It would be really interesting to hear Prof. Brophy's thoughts on this, since he's written extensively on the issue of reparations.