When Fidel Castro swept down from the mountains and routed Fulgencio Batista's forces, one of the first things his revolutionary regime did was to seize the property of American citizens and companies.
In the more than 50 years since, nearly 6,000 American citizens have filed certified claims against the Cuban government for more than $7 billion in property. Now two lawyers in D.C. have a plan to finally start recouping that money.
"All the commerce going on between Cuba and United States at the moment wasn't supposed to happen until these claims were settled," says attorney Mauricio Tamargo. "There is over $2 billion of commerce per year in remittances and travel. That commerce should pay a user fee for the privilege of using stolen American property."
Tamargo knows all about the claims process. He was chairman of the U.S. Dept. of Justice's Foreign Claims Settlement Commission for eight years until returning to private practice in 2010. He says the 5,913 claims vary from a bicycle commandeered by the rebels in 1958 to large plots of land taken from U.S. companies.
"American complainants have been waiting for compensation for roughly 55 years," Tamargo tells Riptide. "They have been forgotten. And the delay makes a mockery of international claims law."
He and his business partner, attorney Jason Poblete, argue that the unresolved property claims are the original sin behind half a century of legal and diplomatic wrangling.
"The whole embargo was started over property being taken from American citizens," he says. "Over time human rights and democracy issues have grown more and more important."
Tamargo proposes at least a 10 percent "user fee" on all business -- mostly agriculture, remittances, and travel -- between the two countries to fund the unresolved complaints. That translates to between $100 million and $200 million per year. Such a fee is only fair, Tamargo says, since "every person visiting Cuba or sending money through the wire are using their stolen property."
He also points out that the Cuban government already taxes remittances and travel to the island. Congress would have to vote for the U.S. to impose a fee.
One potential problem: the fee would affect mostly poor Cuban-Americans either visiting their families in Cuba or sending their relatives money. Yet it would benefit mainly powerful American corporations like sugar companies.
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But Tamargo says that a user fee is the only remedy. A much bigger battle looms if/when Cuba's communist government fails completely.
"When the Iron Curtain fell, many countries went through this reformation of their conflicted properties: East Germany, South Africa, Poland, for example," Tamargo says. "Some day that will have to be done in Cuba. It will be chaotic."