ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
There are some in America who have a personal stake in the relationship with Cuba paying off. They're people and businesses who left behind property when they left the island for the United States. Professor Richard Feinberg of the University of California, San Diego and the Brookings Institution is studying the problem of unresolved claims, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program once again.
RICHARD FEINBERG: My pleasure to be with you, Robert.
SIEGEL: First, what's the volume of outstanding claims?
FEINBERG: So here, we're talking about people who were American citizens when they lost their properties in the early '60s. Of those, we have 6,000 claims. About 1,000 of those are corporate, and the other 5,000 are smaller individual claims.
SIEGEL: We're talking about how much money?
FEINBERG: They all register with an entity of the Department of Justice called the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, and they valued the total 6,000 claims at just under $2 billion in 1960 dollars. Now, if you want to add interest accumulated over 55 years, then you might add another 5 to 6 billion, putting the total claims at 7 to $8 billion.
SIEGEL: And 7 to $8 billion - is there any agreement at all between Havana and Washington as to the rights that those claimants have to compensation?
FEINBERG: The Cubans, from the very beginning, recognized that compensation should be paid where there might be a considerable argument is the size of the compensation. And I also very much doubt that the Cubans will want to pay that sort of accrued interest payments.
SIEGEL: There was a New York Times story this week about a Cuban family that'd had a garment business and owned land. And they had a spacious house in Havana that a member of the family discovered was the residence of the Chinese ambassador to Cuba, recently (laughter). I assume that the Cubans regard a house like that as property to which the old owners have no claim whatever?
FEINBERG: I actually have visited that property. I can assure the former owners that the property is well-kept. Although, they might be surprised to see the Asian themes now in the interior decor. I think it would be extremely unlikely that they would get that property back. They could still apply, however, for some monetary compensation.
SIEGEL: The big money here is in the corporate claims. Are there any big players in particular who would be seeking compensation for assets that they lost in the Cuban revolution?
FEINBERG: The largest single claim right now - originally the Cuban electric company is now held by Home Depot.
SIEGEL: So Home Depot, which I believe didn't exist at the time of the Cuban Revolution, is now a claimant for property in Cuba.
FEINBERG: So Home Depot will have to decide what is their strategy. Do they want to simply seek some monetary compensation as part of a broad deal between the U.S. and Cuba, or possibly, are they interested in entering the Cuban market?
SIEGEL: Do you think the Cubans look forward to these talks as opportunities to negotiate access to the Cuban market rather than compensate companies for property lost?
FEINBERG: Well, first of all, the Cubans have the counterclaims. The Cubans are saying the United States very much hurt the Cuban economy as a result of these many years of economic embargo. They put a number on that of $137 billion total, so we have our claims. They have their claims, and the negotiators will go at it.
SIEGEL: Is your sense of the atmospherics right now in the U.S.-Cuba relationship such that we could see resolution of this pretty quickly?
FEINBERG: I think in general, the atmosphere is good. I do believe that the U.S. government would very much like to resolve this quickly. On the Cuba side, there has been more caution. On the other hand, the Cubans do want to nail down the normalization process. They want to be sure that it's irreversible. So if they could settle these claims, at least put in place a solid agreed-upon framework, then you would have those 6,000 claimants as constituents for moving forward.
SIEGEL: Richard Feinberg, thank you very much for talking with us about Cuba and American property.
FEINBERG: My pleasure.
SIEGEL: Richard Feinberg - professor at the University of California, San Diego and also a fellow at the Brookings Institution.
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