Property Ownership Issue Divides Cubans, Exiles

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Cubans say that one of their biggest fears is the return of the exiles to claim property taken by the government during the revolution. And many in the exile community do want to return to claim what they lost. How that transition should be managed, however, is something no one fully agrees upon.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Florida, federal, state and local officials are rehearsing for nightmare scenario that could take place when Fidel Castro dies. There are estimates that as many as 500,000 Cubans could take to the sea and try to make it to the United States. Today is the third part of our series on Miami's Cuban community.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro examines whether the exile community in south Florida is thinking of heading the other way, back to Cuba.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MARIA VASQUEZ(ph): My name is Maria Vasquez and I'm the owner of (unintelligible) Cubano, which is a Cuban store in Miami. And this store is about nostalgia. It's about the old Cuba, the Cuba before Castro, the Cuba of our parents. They come here to get a glimpse of that Cuba.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Among the items for sale like Cuban shirts called guayaberas, music and framed pictures are also novelty items - toilet paper with pictures of Fidel's face on it, bottles of cider that have a label saying Open Only When Castro is Dead. Vasquez says they're brisk sellers, especially among the older exiles here.

Ms. VASQUEZ: They have been waiting 46 years, 47 years, for this to happen, so this is a way to, you know, to celebrate.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Far from looking to the past, Vasquez, who was born in Cuba but left as a child in 1950, is looking towards the future and her plans to return to Cuba to live.

Ms. VASQUEZ: Half of us is rum and half of us is coke. But the half of the rum is calling us now, and we have a duty as Cubans to go back and reconstruct.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: If you talk to Cubans on the island, they'll tell you that one of their biggest worries is the return of the exiles because of the property issue. Castro has built very little in the past 47 years. Many Cubans live in homes and buildings that belong to someone who left. But Vasquez echoes an opinion that many Cuban-Americans have repeated over and over to me.

Ms. VASQUEZ: We want a system in Cuba that respects private property and free enterprise, but we cannot go there thinking that we're going to get back what our parents had.

Professor JAIME SUCHLICKI (Director, Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies): I'm Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. We've done some surveys and so on. Less than 10, 15 percent of the Cuban-Americans will leave Miami or the United States to go to Cuba. There is a significant number that would like to do business in Cuba, but those people will go there to Cuba from Monday to Thursday, and return to Miami and spend the weekend here. And there is a younger generation that has been assimilated, absorbed, and they will go to Cuba to visit.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Suchlicki also heads the Cuba Transition Project at the University of Miami, whose self-described purpose is to, quote, “study and make recommendations for the reconstruction of Cuba once the post-Castro transition begins in earnest.” It's supported by a grant from USAID. The Cuba Transition Project has produced papers on how Cuban property will be re-distributed. Suchlicki says for residential property there should some sort of compensation. Commercial property should be returned, if possible.

Prof. SUCHLICKI: And if there is a will in Cuba, there are methods on how this thing was done in Estonia, in Lithuania, in Eastern Europe, in Germany. And it's not that difficult.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But already in this issue the lawyers have become involved.

Mr. NICOLAS GUTIÉRREZ (President, National Association of Sugar Mill Owners of Cuba): I am Nicolas Gutiérrez. I am the president of the National Association of Sugar Mill Owners of Cuba. My own family and a few hundred other clients of mine lost significant properties in Cuba, had them confiscated forcibly without any compensation by the revolution, and wish to position themselves to be able to recover them as soon as that becomes possible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gutiérrez is focusing mainly on commercial property that's in the hands of the government. He says that it is an issue that has to be resolved before Cuba can move forward.

Mr. GUTIÉRREZ: It's really the only way that a new Cuban government can send a message to the world investor community that it is serious about respecting private property.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gutiérrez's vision is of a financial bonanza for Cuban-Americans once free market reforms are instituted.

Mr. GUTIÉRREZ: American companies are going to need, you know, an entrée into the islands, and so are Europeans companies. And I think, you know, the concepts that we've learned in this country about democracy and democratic institutions will be very helpful in the rebuilding of a new and better Cuba.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I've been to Cuba several times. And when you talk to Cubans there I mean one of their biggest concerns is exactly what you're describing; this idea of the Miami Cubans coming back and turning back the clock 50 years.

Mr. GUTIÉRREZ: The majority of confiscated owners are not in Miami. They're in Cuba, you know, the compasinos that owned their galleria's or their boiyo(ph). So when we talk about restitution of property, we're not talking about favoring a few wealthy exiles.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Cubans living under Castro of course have not been able to decide their destiny for the past 50 years. They have the communist system thrust on them. Cubans in Miami stress they don't want to also force their ideas on the island. Still, to understand the Cuban exile, they say in Miami, you have to understand the longing that so many people have for their homeland. This isn't a mercenary issue, they say.

This is the late Cuban exile singer Celia Cruz singing the song “Cuando Sali De Cuba,” “When I Left Cuba.”

(Soundbite of song, “Cuando Sali De Cuba”)

Ms. CELIA Cruz (Singer): (Singing) Cuando sali de Cuba…

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When I left Cuba, she's sings, I left my life and my love. When I left Cuba, I buried my heart. It still beats because the land gives it life, she sings. And the day will come when my hand will reach you.

Passion, pain, loss, a country divided for half a century. It may just mean that peacefully resolving who owns the land they all love so much might not be so easy.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Miami.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, our series on Miami's Cubans concludes with a look at the changing politics of the exiled.

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