This article by Raphael Minder appeared in The New York Times.
Though it was more than half a century ago, Carmen Gómez Álvarez-Varcácel, now 90, vividly remembers her last hour on Cuban soil.
She was preparing to board an ocean liner bound for Spain, hoping to escape the new Communist government of Fidel Castro, when she was stopped at the gangway by militiamen bent on confiscating her valuables. She tried to hand over just her jewelry box, but the men ordered her to surrender the pieces she was wearing, too: a necklace, rings, a gold watch and her mother’s diamond and sapphire earrings.
Her family had prospered in Cuba, owning seven houses in the El Cerro district of Havana and a general store that sold “everything from whiskey to cloth,” she said. But after the revolution, they felt doubly unwelcome, as Spaniards and as bourgeoisie, so they fled, leaving behind what they could not carry — and to her grief, some of the things they could.
While Cuba was still firmly in the communist camp and ostracized by the West, there was little chance of her recovering her lost property, or even tracking down what had become of it. But now Cuba is coming in from the cold, opening up parts of its economy and, most important, mending fences with the United States. And at last, Spaniards like Ms. Álvarez-Varcácel see a chance to press their claims in Havana and eventually get compensation, if not restitution.
Some diplomatic obstacles have been falling away, now that President Obama has decided to improve relations with Cuba. On May 29, Washington removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, and the two countries agreed this month to reopen embassies in each other’s capitals.
But a major hurdle remains: Spain and Cuba signed an agreement in 1986 in which Cuba agreed to pay about $40 million in compensation for seized assets over a 15-year period, partly in cash and partly in goods like tobacco.
Whether that agreement was the final settlement of all Spanish claims is unclear.
The claimants hope not. They see the détente between Washington and Havana as “very good news, because it shows change is underway in Cuba,” said Jordi Cabarrocas, the director of the 1898 Company, an investment fund that represents some Spaniards whose property was seized. “There will be more twists and turns, but what’s important is that Spaniards don’t miss out on the changes in Cuba.”
Still, the Cuban government has lately shown no inclination to discuss expropriation claims. The Cuban Embassy in Madrid said it had no comment on the issue.
Four hundred years of Spanish colonial rule ended in Cuba in 1898, with the Spanish-American War, but Spaniards continued to predominate among the island’s wealthy landowners until the revolution, Mr. Cabarrocas said.
American citizens lost considerable assets in Cuba as well — a 2007 studyby Creighton University put the value of certified claims at about $6 billion — and some lawmakers are pressing the Obama administration to look more closely at the issue. But Mr. Cabarrocas said he thought the Spanish owners’ case for compensation was more compelling.
“I believe we’re in a stronger position than Americans, because we’re talking about Cuba expropriating people who were mostly dual citizens, both Spanish and Cuban, so fully covered by international law,” Mr. Cabarrocas said.
He said that the farms, factories, warehouses and other assets seized from his company’s clients, who include families and some religious orders, would be worth about $1.8 billion now, and that Spanish claims in Cuba overall would amount to about $20 billion.
“If I could get my things back, clearly, I would go back right now,” said María Luisa Castro de la Rosa, 82. She grew up in the Galicia region of northwestern Spain, the source of thousands of Spanish émigrés to Cuba, including Fidel Castro’s father. She moved to Cuba in 1954 to join her husband, whose family owned several theaters in Havana and a sugar refinery.
“The ones who really had the most money in Cuba were Spaniards,” she recalled.
“Spain was still recovering from its own civil war, and we could both live very well in Cuba and also send a lot of money back to help relatives and others in Galicia.”
When Ms. Álvarez-Varcácel arrived in Spain, she remembered being shocked by “how backward Spain was compared to Cuba — without television sets and most of the other household goods available in Cuba.”
Pablo Prieto, 61, was only a small boy when the revolution came, but his father and uncles had a cattle farm, a slaughterhouse and other assets that were seized. He said he had made a dozen visits to Cuba in recent years to see exactly what they once had.
Though the 1898 Company keeps 30 percent of whatever it recovers for its clients, Mr. Prieto said he decided to pursue his claims through the company because “it’s easier to create pressure and demand compensation if you join forces.”
Javier Cremades, a Spanish lawyer whose firm has been advising the 1898 Company, said the claimants had not had much help from the current conservative government in Madrid, which has been reluctant to revisit the 1986 agreement with Havana.
José Luis Martín-Yagüe, an official at the Spanish Embassy in Havana, said that Spain used the money paid under the agreement to compensate claimants, and that Spanish courts had confirmed the pact’s validity. Any further Spanish claims, he said, would have to be litigated in Cuba, “something which isn’t possible for now.”
Mr. Cremades said the claimants hoped to do so successfully “once Cuba returns to an independent judiciary,” in much the way that claims were settled in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union.
“With the support of our own government, everything would be easier,” he said.
Gabriel González de Gregorio, a Spanish descendant of the Herrera family of Cuba, said that at the Castro government’s insistence, the 1986 agreement excluded any compensation for the Spanish families that were most powerful in pre-revolutionary Cuba, including his own, which owned the company that made La Tropical beer.
The 1986 agreement was “clearly incomplete, but at least it was a recognition by both Cuba and Spain that rights had been violated in Cuba and that there was an obligation to compensate for that,” Mr. González de Gregorio said.
He said he does not want the brewery back; he just wants to be paid for what was taken from his family.
But Ms. Álvarez-Varcácel would rather get her family heirlooms and the jewelry that was confiscated at the dockside. “If Americans or others get something back in Cuba, I also want my things back,” she said.
“I’m probably too old to travel and enjoy Cuba again, but age isn’t an issue for my children and others in my family.”