Fidel Castro to Obama: You owe us millions

The former President of Cuba claims that the US owes Cuba for economic harm inflicted by the decades-long trade embargo.

Desmond Boylan/AP/File
A poster of Fidel Castro with a message that reads, in Spanish, 'Fidel, forever Fidel!' decorates the administrative office window of state-run food stores, in Havana, Cuba, in July.

The US owes Cuba "many millions of dollars."

So says former Cuban president Fidel Castro, who used the occasion of his 89th birthday on Thursday to call for restitution for America's half-century-long trade embargo.

"Cuba is owed compensation equivalent to damages, which total many millions of dollars, as our country has stated with irrefutable arguments and data in all of its speeches at the United Nations," Mr. Castro wrote in an essay published by local media.

Resolving outstanding claims on both sides will be a complex, and critical, part of the thawing of relations between the US and Cuba. The Cuban government is demanding compensation for the embargo, as well as for assets frozen in American banks after the revolution. And some American companies and individuals are eager to settle claims on American-owned land and businesses that were confiscated by Cuba during the revolution.

But any settlement process will likely be stymied by politics and time – it's been more than 50 years since the 1959 Cuban revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power and nationalized once-privately owned properties.

Castro's armed revolt against the US-backed authoritarian government in Cuba and the establishment of a socialist state eventually ruled by the Communist Party marked the beginning of a decades-long chill in relations between the two countries, including the start of a trade embargo against Cuba that economically crippled the island nation, located 90 miles south of the US.

On Dec. 17, 2014, Cuban President Raul Castro and President Barack Obama announced the historic thaw between the two nations. US Secretary of State John Kerry is traveling to Cuba Friday to reopen the US embassy.

And both sides have used the thaw to stake their claims.

Just how much does the US owe Cuba?

Castro didn't specify a figure in his essay, but Cuban officials have long argued that the embargo resulted in deep economic losses. In 2013, they put the accumulated damages from the embargo at $157 billion.

In addition, $270 million worth of Cuban assets are frozen in United States bank accounts, according to a 2014 Treasury Department report.

The US also says Cuba owes it money, about $6 to $8 billion.

When Castro came into power in 1959, he seized real estate, businesses, and other assets from thousands of US citizens and businesses. Energy giants like Texaco and Exxon lost oil refineries, Coca-Cola lost bottling plants, tire manufacturers Goodyear and Firestone lost factories, and major chains like Hilton lost valuable real estate.

Restitution for this seized property was so important to Americans that 20 years ago, a law was enacted to ensure it. The Helms-Burton law includes language about the “satisfactory resolution” of property claims as an “essential condition” for restoring full economic and diplomatic ties with Cuba.

But fully compensating everyone may prove difficult. For one thing, the Cuban government may not be able to afford such payments. In addition, more than half a century after assets were seized, many individual claimants are dead, and original corporations may no longer exist.

Despite the difficulties, American diplomats are unlikely to waive this requirement. Restitution of American assets may be critical for the Cuban government to attract foreign investors, and for President Obama to persuade Congress to lift the trade embargo against Cuba, which persists despite the thawing relations.

Many Republicans want to maintain the embargo, insisting that Cuba has to improve its human rights record and make other democratic reforms before it can be lifted.

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