Run from Cuba, Americans cling to claims for seized property
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The smell of Cuban coffee drifts from the kitchen as Carolyn Chester digs through photos, faded with age, that fill four boxes spread across the dining table.
Friends linked arm-in-arm on the sands of a Cuban beach.
Men in suits and women in evening gowns at a Havana nightclub.
And in almost every frame, a dapper American man with a salt-and-pepper mustache and a raven-haired woman with the arched eyebrows of a 1950s movie star — Chester's father and mother — smiling at the good fortune that, they could not know, would soon be snatched away.
"That life is gone," Chester says.
"I always heard about Cuba ... and all this money that we lost and 'Maybe one day,' but I didn't understand it."
Now, nearly 60 years and 1,500 miles later, that day may finally be nearing for Chester, and for others like her. But to reach it, new and untested diplomacy will have to settle very old scores.
Soon after Fidel Castro won control of Cuba in 1959, his government began confiscating the property of thousands of U.S. citizens and companies. For Edmund and Enna Chester, the losses included an 80-acre farm, hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of stock, and a brand new Buick that, who knows, may still be plying Havana's streets.
The confiscation of American property, valued today at $7 billion or more, was wrapped up in the retaliatory back-and-forth that led to the trade embargo, which remains in place. In 1996, Congress passed a law insisting Cuba repay Americans for what was taken before the embargo can be lifted.
That demand went unmentioned in President Barack Obama's December announcement that the U.S. and Cuba would resume diplomatic ties. Given Cuba's frail economy, some experts say companies whose property was taken might gladly settle for rights to do business there today and move on.
But a corporation doesn't hang on to memories the way a family can. That's clear in places like Chester's 832-square-foot bungalow in Omaha, pitched atop a corner lot that's mostly slope, where a gold-framed oil portrait of her mother from long ago watches over the yellowing property deed and the worthless stock certificates.
They are reminders that the Cuba that existed before Castro is history. But the bitterness over what came after lingers on.
Inside the offices of a little-known federal agency, more than 5,900 claims files tally the furniture and factories, clothing and cars that once belonged to Americans in Cuba.
But really, the claims are stories — of lives that were left behind.
Edmund Chester's story began soon after he came home to Louisville, Kentucky, from the Army and got a job as a newspaper reporter. In his off hours, Chester taught himself Spanish, which lead him away again. In 1929, he was hired by The Associated Press, which dispatched him to Havana.
Chester spent the next decade reporting across the Caribbean and Latin America. His work kindled a love of Cuba, whose music and art filled his home until his death, and seeded two crucial relationships.
The first came when he covered a 1933 revolt that put a former sergeant, Fulgencio Batista, in charge of Cuba's military. Two decades later, when Batista was Cuba's dictator, he trusted Chester — by then a fishing companion and confidant, no longer a journalist — to write his authorized biography, with a photo of the men smiling alongside one another, inside the front cover.
The second relationship began in 1939 when Chester went to Chile to cover an earthquake and spotted Enna, nearly 20 years his junior, at a hotel swimming pool. Years later, their daughter recalls, the couple would dance around the parlor of their Mount Dora, Florida, home to the ballad "Besame Mucho" — Spanish for "kiss me a lot."
"He was still smitten with her," Carolyn Chester says.
In 1940, CBS hired Chester as its chief of radio broadcasting for Latin America. Eventually, he became the network's director of news and special events, working in New York alongside Edward R. Murrow.
Chester returned to Cuba in 1952, buying a chain of radio stations on an island where U.S. companies dominated the economy. Havana was a magnet for Americans, including celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando, searching for a hedonistic getaway.
"Cuba was a cabaret, a casino, a place to soak up the sun," says Louis Perez, a historian at the University of North Carolina. "Boy, did that change."
Chester sold the radio stations after a few years. But his growing family continued to split their time between an apartment overlooking Havana Bay and central Florida.
He opened a Havana public relations agency and when a Hollywood crew came to make a 1956 feature, "The Sharkfighters," Chester shepherded them around what was then called the Isle of Pines, off Cuba's south coast. Soon after, the Chesters bought an 80-acre farm on the island, once home to an American population large enough to support its own school. In 1957, the Chesters acquired $250,000 worth of shares in the Cuban Telephone Co.
But Edmund Chester, an adviser and speechwriter for Batista, grew uneasy as Castro's rebels gained ground.
"Preciosa, I have just hung up the telephone after talking to you and I could tell that you were worried," he wrote his wife from Havana in July 1958, weeks after Carolyn was born. "I agree that we ought to make (a) complete break with Cuba at the earliest possible moment."
When he rejoined the family in Florida three days before Christmas, his work in Cuba was still unfinished. But days later, Batista fled the country, and on Jan. 1, 1959, Castro's forces seized control.
In the first months of Castro's rule, many American officials thought he was someone they could work with.
But when the Soviet Union began shipping oil to Cuba, the U.S. ordered island refineries — owned by American firms and other multinationals — not to process the crude from its Cold War archrival.
The Cuban government seized the refineries. The Eisenhower administration struck back by eliminating price protection for Cuban sugar, which netted the island 90 percent of its hard currency earnings. Cuba had already nationalized the island's largest farms and moved to take control of still others. By the time President John F. Kennedy imposed the embargo in 1962, Cuba had confiscated scores of properties.
Marooned, Edmund Chester, looked for a way to support the family. He hadn't foreseen this forced retirement, he wrote a friend in 1965. And now most of his nest egg had been "whipped into a batch of Cuban scrambled eggs by the tyranny of Fidel Castro."
The Chesters were hardly alone.
Throughout the 1960s, the U.S. government's Foreign Claims Settlement Commission fielded thousands of American claims for confiscated Cuban property. The largest came from corporations, led by U.S.-owned Cuban Electric Company, whose seized power plants were valued at $268 million. After years of mergers, that claim is today held by retailer Office Depot Inc.
But the majority of the 5,900 approved claims came from individuals and families.
Luther Coleman was a Detroit entrepreneur who moved his family to the Isle of Pines in 1952, where he bought more than 3,000 acres.
Coleman's daughter, Nancy Luetzow, who moved to Cuba when she was 8 and today lives in Hillsdale, Michigan, said her father convinced her "timid" mother. "He said this is our chance to have a life in paradise."
The family's claim for lost property was valued by the FCSC at about $173,000.
Roy Schechter was born in Cuba, a dual American citizen whose family had immigrated years earlier and founded Havana's synagogue. Schechter married and brought his American wife, Lois, to the island.
In 1960, the couple drove to the family's 14,000-acre farm to prepare the week's payroll and were met by soldiers who told them they were no longer the owners. When the couple departed soon after on a ferry to Key West, Lois Schechter hid her wedding ring and other jewelry inside a diaper stained with vanilla extract, hoping to dissuade Cuban officials from a thorough search.
Before they left, they paid all their employees, expecting that one day they'd return. Instead, Roy Schechter spent the rest of his working life in the shoe store in Nyack, New York, owned by his father-in-law. The Schechters' losses, along with the farm, included a 17-room Spanish colonial in Havana that had been his mother's and now is used as a residence for the Chinese embassy.
Their daughter, Amy Rosoff, who shares a home in Saratoga Springs, New York, with her mother, recalls her father's regular reminders about their claim.
"I'd love to get my grandmother's house back," Rosoff says, "because it's a sort of a whole history that's been taken away."
Experts on the long-lost property differ on what to make of the American claims, which are protected by international law.
"You're now dealing in the realm of memory more than anything else," says Robert Muse, a Washington attorney representing companies with claims. "For many, the sense of dispossession is to form an idealized world that may not have altogether been exactly like that."
But Mauricio Tamargo, chairman of the settlement commission until 2010 and now an attorney representing claimants, said the confiscations inflicted lasting damage on American families.
"Many of them never recovered financially," Tamargo says. "You know, nobody ever expected for their claims to go unpaid for 50 years."
Edmund Chester, in his early 60s with three young children, couldn't afford to retire.
But a hard freeze destroyed the citrus trees he'd planned to harvest. He replaced them with peach trees, but they died, too. He put his remaining savings into a poultry venture.
"The chicken farms were a financial disaster," son Edmund Jr. says. "I didn't realize how bad it was until I searched court records for me and his court papers all came up. The feed supplier, the mortgage holder, they were all after him."
The stress weighed on the elder Chester, whose mental faculties were fading. He told his children he feared Castro's men were coming to kill him and taught them all how to handle guns. He awoke in the middle of the night screaming.
Those fears were grounded in experience. One night in 1958, the Chesters' eldest, Patricia, was swimming in the pool behind the house with friends when a sharp noise pierced the darkness.
"At first we thought it was backfire" from a passing car, recalls a girlfriend, Jean Stoothoff. But the staccato of gunshots continued down the length of the property, she says. The last came just as Edmund Chester and two guards ran outside with their own guns drawn.
"He had a little .38. I don't know where he kept it, but whenever somebody new drove in and he didn't know who they were, he'd put it in his back pocket and go out and greet them," his son recalls.
Before he died in 1975 after a series of strokes, the elder Chester invested his hopes in winning compensation for property seizures that were "so sudden, so violent, and so complete." For years afterward, Enna Chester clipped and saved newspaper stories about American claims in Cuba, even as she sold off the land around the house to cover bills.
Carolyn Chester, whose father died when she was 15, said her parents' talk of their losses made little impression until she was about 20 and joined her mother for lunch with a banker. As they were leaving, he called her aside to remind her that someday the frozen relationship between the U.S. and Cuba would thaw — and money might come her way.
But her mother's death in 2001 left Carolyn Chester with reels of old home movies, dense paperwork and unpaid debts.
When she moved to Omaha with her family in 2006, she got a job in the admissions office at Creighton University's medical school, where she showed co-workers her family's Cuba photos.
One day, a colleague mentioned in passing that she'd heard students and professors at the law school were delving into claims for confiscated Cuban property. Hadn't Castro taken the Chester family's land, too?
About a decade ago, the notion of a Cuba without Fidel Castro began to seem increasingly possible.
"Fidel's looking infirm, and the Bush administration decides, well, if something happens in Cuba we need to have a plan in place," says Michael Kelly, a professor of law at Creighton.
The government commissioned several studies, including one taking measure of the property seizures and possible strategies for settling the claims. A group at Creighton won the job, despite being far-removed from the South Florida-centered vortex of emotions that often swirl around the issue of U.S.-Cuba relations.
Professors recruited students, and they spent a week poring over old claims at the settlement commission's offices in Washington, D.C. Two professors flew to Cuba, searching for homes and businesses listed in claims paperwork, only to find the names of streets had changed. Some buildings were moldering, others apparently gone.
"Each of these tells a little bit of a story," political science professor Rick Witmer says, pointing to entries in a computer database he built from bits of detail about each of the claims. One entry lists a family's lost art and household furnishings. Another, a cigarette factory.
"These are people's lives, the things that they lost. And you're not going to be able to put that back together."
U.S. law, though, demands that the government try. The embargo began with a presidential directive. But in 1996, with tensions inflamed by Cuba's downing of two planes flown by exiles dropping leaflets on the island, lawmakers passed the Helms-Burton act, which, in part, made the embargo a part of U.S. law that could only be lifted by Congress.
"It is the sense of the Congress," the law says, "that the satisfactory resolution of property claims ... remains an essential condition," for the full resumption of relations between the countries.
Looking at the certified claims provides a window back to when Cuba was home to a concentration of American wealth. Today, the biggest claims, by corporations like Exxon-Mobil Corp. and Coca-Cola, might well be settled by giving them the right to do business in Cuba, Kelly says. But claims holders will have to face the reality that the country doesn't have the money to make them whole, he says.
"When the Cuban economy opens we will be facing the largest bankruptcy of the 21st century, 90 miles off our shore," Kelly says. "So we need to be creative about how those claims go away."
In 2007, Creighton professors held a news conference to announce their findings about Cuban claims they cautioned might net just 3 or 4 cents on the dollar.
Claims holders had long been told their losses would be adjusted for inflation, making what was valued at nearly $1.9 billion in the 1960s worth much more today, at least on paper. The possibility that the Chesters' losses, once worth $489,000, might instead be devalued, rankled Carolyn Chester. And when an investor called seeking to buy her claim for a fraction of its original value, she grew angry.
Divorced, with a teenage son, Chester began devoting long hours to studying family records. She dug for information, trying to understand how it was that, with so many non-U.S. companies investing in Cuba, its government could possibly have so little to repay claims.
Poring over articles about Cuba, she disputed comments from readers who labeled the Americans who had lived on the island as mobsters who got what they deserved.
"She's taken this thing," her brother says, "and grabbed onto it like a pit bull."
On a Wednesday morning in December, Chester heard that Obama was going to deliver a statement about Cuba, and asked for the rest of the day off. Back home, she leaned toward the television below her mother's portrait, listening closely as the president spoke of rewriting a "rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born."
To Chester, the speech confirmed that politicians and the corporations that lobby them want to move on, and would be glad if the claims vanished.
But they can't see what she does from her living room, where a two-foot tall stack of Cuba-related documents crowns the coffee table.
Fidel Castro didn't merely take property, Chester says. He stole her parents' financial security, her father's health — and any chance of an inheritance to repair her cracked and listing front steps.
Fifty-six years later, she says, "I'm not going to let him take from me again."
Adam Geller can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AdGeller