It was the largest confiscation of privately-held American property in a foreign land. Likely ever. Communist Cuba owes U.S. taxpayers close to $8 billion for stolen property that it never paid for. Cuba owes billions more for looted art and antiquities as well as scores of human rights abuses for which there has not been an accounting. As U.S. officials travel to Cuba for high-level meetings next month, property claims and human rights must be on the agenda; however, I doubt these issues will receive the attention that they deserve.
Rather than focus on resolving confiscated property claims, or securing the release of cop killers and other fugitives from U.S. law, Obama administration officials are dancing with the enemy in Communist Cuba while the ruling Communist party and its officials are smiling all the way, literally, to the bank. Ever since President Obama announced appeasement on December 17, 2014, Cuba’s creditors have forgiven billions of dollars in sovereign debt, U.S. travel to the island has spiked, and a somewhat craven lot of foreign investors ogle the Caribbean gulag for fire sales.
As a matter of law, the 1959 Communist takeover was illegal. It started, and because of Obama’s reckless foreign policy, I am afraid it is ending, bloody. The first official act by the bearded thugs was to cancel the Cuban constitution. For added drama they also carried out a mass murder of scores of men and women associated with the prior democratic, albeit flawed government. After shuttering all of the Catholic and other religious schools, as well as assassinating priests, nuns, and other religious, they came for private lands. All of it.
First they targeted the Cuban businesses and families, then they went after the Americans. And what they could not take by suasion they took by the barrel of a gun. It was bloody. Families were divided, on purpose, by the regime. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans were jailed, tortured, and much worse, including death. When it came to property, it was part nationalization but a whole lot more punitive confiscation. Private property would be eliminated and held in common for the benefit of all.
It was an ideologically-driven purge of American businesses and families, American and Cuban, that was a essential component of the Communist takeover that started in earned in 1959. The proletariat had to replace the old older. In turn, the bourgeoisie – or the “worms” as the regime called Americans and Cuban families – expelled or, in some cases, jailed, tortured, and eliminated. Communist Cuba was preparing the way for an alliance with the Soviet Union, a Russian beachhead in the Western Hemisphere. The “imperialist pigs” had to be expelled.
American businesses and families that fled Cuba were able to take advantage of a claims process created by the U.S. government. Approximately 8,000 businesses and families filed claims to seek some justice for these unlawful and, some criminal, actions. Worth about $8 billion today, 5,913 claims that were certified by an indepdent commission at the Department of Justice. Unlike other nations that have had to pay claims for stolen lands from Americans, Cuba has refused to pay what it stole.
Displacing people from their homes, properties, and businesses is a serious and illegal offense. As a matter of law, a government can use its eminent domain power for a legitimate public purpose so long as it pays compensation. But that is not what happened in Communist Cuba. The regime did it to terrorize and score political points. It was a scheme designed to create a Communist paradise in the Americas – a scheme that failed and, in the process, people died, human rights were abused, and legacies destroyed. One simply does not forgive and forget, as the Obama administration seeks to do. As I share frequently with clients, or just about anyone who will listen: “justice does not have a ‘sell-by’ date.”
The current Obama administration approach toward Cuba is like one of those vintage American cars ubiquitous in Old Havana, pretty on the outside, at least until you look under the hood. Like most things in Potemkin Cuba, these cars are not what they seem. It may have an American body, but the engines may be Russian or even from a boat. Cuba needs changes from the inside out, and it begins with political change as well as legal change that, among other things includes respect for the rule of law and respect of private property rights.
The resolution of U.S. claims against Cuba will impact well beyond Cuba. Done right, it will send a clear signal to dictators and would-be dictators that America stands by their taxpayers, no matter how long it takes. Sooner or later, you’ll pay. It will also help set the stage for a future transition government in Cuba that, rather than deal with endless legal challenges, can put this behind them and show foreign investors that they are committed to market systems to help rebuild the Communist-ravaged island.