ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
And I'm Rebecca Roberts.
This week, Fidel Castro gave his first interview since undergoing emergency surgery and seeding power to his brother Raul. Fidel Castro appeared stronger than before but gave no indication he expects to return the power. The end of Castro's rule and just the prospect of change in Cuba has cheered South Florida's exile community and others.
And as NPR's Greg Allen reports, those with the legal claims against the Cuban government are watching closely as well.
GREG ALLEN: It's a point of principle among many Cuban exiles. While they long for their former home, they refuse to return even for a visit until Castro is gone and change begins to come to Cuba.
Many fled after their homes and businesses were seized at gunpoint by the communist regime. An exhibit of photographs in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood offers them the next best thing to a visit.
Professor MARIO SANCHEZ (Computer Sciences, Miami Dade College): These three here is a composite of the city of Havana. If you look closely, you can actually see cars and if you look very carefully, you may be able see people.
ALLEN: Mario Sanchez is a professor of computer sciences at Miami Dade College who conceived this exhibition. It's part of a project that marries computer technology with high-definition photography. It's aimed at helping Cuban-Americans locate and see images of their former homes. As he steps closer to the large, wall-mounted satellite photo, it's clear Sanchez has a personal interest in the project.
Mr. SANCHEZ: My house is in this area here, the Tamarindo area and it's one of these houses I will not be able to point it from the top but I do have an old 1960 picture from the front. But I remember, oh, we're from the Tamarindo area, which is right next to Rodriguez area so in these two areas is where I was born and where my father and mother lost their house.
ALLEN: Several years ago, Sanchez sent to the U.S. State Department copies of his photo, the deed for the Havana property, and an affidavit asserting his claim to his former home. That process helped inspire this project, where Cuban exiles can use an interactive map to locate their former homes and if they wish, file claims with the U.S. government.
Professor NAPHTALI RISHE (Florida International University): And so, let's look at it as an example. Say that...
ALLEN: At his home office in Miami Beach, Naphtali Rishe shows how Cuban Americans can find their homes and file a claim. At his laptop, he brings up the Web site he runs, terrafly.com. A few clicks later, he is navigating around an interactive satellite map of Havana.
Mr. RISHE: So here, I came to a location in Havana and I claim that this is my property. I click here, here comes a form for the declamation of this property. It has a photograph embedded. You have several photograph, which is automatically embedded into your affidavit.
ALLEN: In some cases, the interactive map links to high-definition, street-level images of the property or others nearby, taken by U.S. volunteers and entered into the database.
Rishe, a professor at Florida International University, says the project isn't political. It was intended to be an interactive archive that would document the current architecture of Havana, but which would, at the same time, allow users to register claims to their former homes.
Professor RISHE: My concern with that is that it sends the wrong message to the Cuban people and it's a weapon to be used by the Cuban government.
ALLEN: Attorney Pedro Freyre's family had four houses in Havana confiscated by the Castro regime. But he says now is not the time to press those claims.
Mr. PEDRO FREYRE (Resident, Miami): The message that is being sent when you do something like that is that people in Miami have one goal and one goal only, which is to get their property back and that is simply not true. Our primary objective is to have a Cuba that is democratic, and that respects private property, and honors free market, and that is prosperous.
ALLEN: Freyre also represents U.S. companies that have property confiscated by Cuba and which, like these individual homeowners, have registered claims with the U.S. government.
In all, nearly 6,000 companies and individuals have claims on file with the State Department. Claims that are waiting for some day in the future when Cuba and the U.S. are ready to discuss normalizing relations. But while thousands wait, a few people have brought lawsuits against the Cuban government and won.
One of them is Janet Ray Weininger, daughter of CIA pilot Thomas Ray, who was shot down during the 1961 Bay of Pigs operation and executed by Cuban authorities.
Ms. JANET RAY WEININGER: I always use Ray, that was my father's last name, and that is my tribute to him because he wanted the name to be carried.
ALLEN: Weininger was just 6 when she last saw her father. It wasn't until the early 1970s that CIA officials told her family how he died. But by then, though still a teenager, she'd begun trying to get Cuban authorities to return her father's body.
Ms. WEININGER: I wrote Castro letters for almost 10 years and he finally answered me by sending me a photo of my dad after he was executed - a very bloody photo - through an author and said, go home and tell the daughter of the pilot, I have her father. And if its him, I will give him back.
ALLEN: In 1979, Cuba released Thomas Ray's body. And then in 1996, Congress passed a law allowing U.S. citizens to sue foreign governments for terrorist acts. In Cuba's case, hundreds of millions of dollars have been held frozen in U.S. bank accounts since the 1960s. Last year, Janet Ray Weininger received nearly $25 million disbursed from frozen Cuban accounts.
Two other lawsuits have also successfully tapped frozen Cuban funds. Families of members of the group Brothers to the Rescue, shot down in their plane by Cuba in 1996, received more than $90 million. Also last year, the family of Howard Anderson, a U.S. businessman shot by a Cuban firing squad in 1961, received $67 million.
Other judgments against the Castro regime are pending. But Cuba and knowledgeable U.S. sources say there is little money left in Cuba's frozen accounts.
Mr. STUART EIZENSTAT (Former White House Official, Clinton and Carter Administrations): There may be a little left, but it's certainly precious little.
ALLEN: Stuart Eizenstat is a former official in the Clinton and Carter administrations, who's worked on claims involving foreign governments including Iran and Vietnam. He's critical of the lawsuits that have tapped Cuba's frozen funds, saying they unfairly bypassed thousands of other legitimate claims - and they undercut U.S. diplomatic leverage with Cuba.
Mr. EIZENSTAT: When a post Castro era comes and we want to normalize relations with Cuba, not having those assets as diplomatic leverage and not having them available to people who had legitimately waited, really reduces our capacity to deal with a post Castro Cuba and is unfair to people who have waited.
ALLEN: Eizenstat says from his experience, settling the thousands of claims pending against Cuba should not be much of an obstacle to normalization when that day finally comes.
Mr. EIZENSTAT: I would hope that in Cuba, in addition to some perhaps small symbolic compensation for properly taking in for last laws, that there would be expressed apology for the misdeeds of the Castro era.
ALLEN: Given Cuba's poor economic state, Eizenstat says any compensation received by claimants may be little more than token payments - and that ultimately, an apology may be as important as the money.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.