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Commentary: Cuba embargo haunted by unresolved money claims

From her modest home in Omaha, Carolyn Lamb observes news of Cuba with a discriminating financial eye.

She has the potential for a substantial windfall as restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba continue to ease.

But this isn't the tale of an entrepreneur seeking a Caribbean business venture when trade relations are normalized. (Yes, that is when, not if.)

Lamb just wants her money. She is among thousands of U.S. citizens who hold claims on assets seized by Fidel Castro when he overthrew the government in 1959.

More than 5,900 claims were approved as valid by the U.S. government in 1972, at a total value of $1.8 billion. Interest has raised the estimated worth to $6 billion. But many of the corporations holding the largest claims have merged or no longer exist. Their one-time CEOs are dead.

Powerful political voices are clamoring for the economic sanctions to be lifted, but the absence of input from people in Lamb’s position is a source of contention for her, if few others.

"Everyone has forgotten about the Americans who lost their money," said Lamb, an event coordinator at Creighton University.

She's right. For many, images of Cuba pre-Fidel are formed from grainy photos of Mafia figures or Hollywood starlets gathered for cocktail hour. Yet U.S. investment in Cuba was once unrivaled: railroads, hotels, sugar production, branches of U.S. banks and utility companies. And the loss of those properties was a prime rationale behind the now nearly 50-year-old economic sanctions.

Lamb's deceased father was Edmund Chester, a CBS radio and television executive credited with opening up South and Central American markets. He also owned stock in Cuba's telephone system and land there. In 1967, the stock alone was valued at $490,000, according to Lamb.

So you can understand how Lamb was less than thrilled with the group of corporate suits she said visited her last fall hoping to buy the family's claim for pennies on the dollar. Legally, it is questionable if the claims can be sold outright.

Squeezing payments out of Fidel, his brother Raul or their government doesn't get much mention in Congress. The momentum for change in U.S.-Cuban relations is building, but with the powerful motivator of future profits, not past losses.

Western Union quickly adjusted its services to manage the increased flow of cash from Cuban–Americans to their Cuban relatives just approved by Barack Obama. Even the head of the Cuban American National Foundation, once the strongest pro-sanction voice, was quoted as saying the embargo was only "a symbol" and "not something that is that important anymore."

At least one person in Omaha would beg to differ.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at msanchez@kcstar.com.

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