Soon after Fidel Castro came to power, his government seized the refineries, hotels and sugar plantations that were the most visible signs of the American hold on the island's economy.
But a look at long-unsettled claims for what was taken shows that many of the Americans who lost out were individuals and families rather than corporations. And much of what was seized, while of limited value in dollars, was sometimes dearly prized.
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Nearly 90 percent of the Americans who filed claims for confiscated Cuban property were individuals, according to a Creighton University study commissioned by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
"They left behind all kinds of stuff — stock, life insurance policies, artwork, cars," says Michael Kelly, a Creighton law professor who participated in the study, released in 2007. "Those '57 Chevys driving around? You know, one out of three of those probably has a claim attached to it....That's going to be a huge problem to unwind."
About 5,900 American claims for confiscated property were certified by the federal Foreign Claims Settlement Commission. Though originally valued at nearly $1.9 billion, adjustments for inflation in the years since mean they are today worth $7 billion or more.
Some of the losses were very large. The American-owned Cuban Electric Company lost power plants worth $268 million, a claim now held by retailer Office Depot Inc. as a result of mergers. International Telephone and Telegraph Corp.'s losses totaled $131 million. Exxon's losses, including a refinery, topped $71 million.
But about eight in 10 of the claims for lost property were valued at $10,000 or less by the FCSC, which over the years has also fielded Americans' petitions for property seized in Iran, Vietnam and the Soviet Union. Such claims are covered by international law, which is generally understood to bar governments from taking the property of foreign citizens or companies without compensation.
About 70 percent of the Cuban claims were for stock. But many involved land or other real estate, with most of that either in Havana or on the former Isle of Pines, off Cuba's southern coast and once home to a large American population. Other claims listed lost pensions, bank accounts and personal property like jewelry and furniture.
When Creighton professors traveled to Cuba nearly a decade ago they went searching for confiscated properties including buildings that once housed a university and a clinic run by a Catholic order of friars.
"There's almost nothing left of it. You can just see half-knocked down walls at that corner," says one professor, Patrick Borchers. "So there's just no going back."