After the 1959 revolution, the state seized buildings now estimated to be worth $100bn and rented to, among others, Lloyd’s of London and the British embassy
HAVANA August 1 With an elegant marble staircase leading up to a small modern art gallery, and large crescent windows overlooking perfectly manicured lawns, the newly refurbished office building on Calle B is one of the smartest in Havana’s central business district of Vedado.
Its bright, whitewashed walls and exquisite stained glass windows have housed the Cuban headquarters of Lloyd’s of London for two decades. In the main office hang twin portraits of the Queen and Fidel Castro, “maybe the only office in the world with these two next to each other”, according to secretary Myra de Rojas.
Yet exactly who owns the property close to the newly reopened United States embassy in Havana is among many similar questions yet to be resolved as President Barack Obama’s administration attempts to end more than half a century of hostilities with Cuba, its former cold war foe.
Lloyd’s rents the office space from Palco, the Cuban government entity responsible for leasing property to foreign embassies and overseas businesses. But Nicolás Gutiérrez, a Miami-based consultant who has worked with hundreds of clients who say their homes were illegally seized in the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, insists that this building belongs to his family.
It is, he says, one of many properties including houses, warehouses, farmland and even two sugar mills that the wealthy Gutiérrez-Castaño family lost to the communists, and among an estimated $100bn worth (at today’s values) of assets seized from many thousands of Cuban and US owners without any kind of restitution.
“All of us want to be recognised as the legal owners,” Gutiérrez said. “But the US government is moving ahead with its ill-conceived opening of relations with Cuba without addressing the issue of restoring ownership rights. There should be restitution or at the very least compensation. Land is going to be very valuable when the system changes and a capitalist system is restored.”
He said that none of the owners with whom he works would want existing tenants to be removed from their properties but, as with the building now occupied by Lloyd’s, it is a matter of protecting the rights of private ownership. “This used to be a cousin’s home and now it is in the hands of the Cuban government and its foreign business partner,” he said.
Gutiérrez’s interest in reclaiming the title to his family’s lost holdings, and his desire to help others do the same, was fuelled by the tales recounted by his businessman father, also named Nicolás, who studied law at the University of Havana at the same time as Fidel Castro. He said that his father tried to steer clear of this campus’s “rabble-rousing thug”, whose anti-capitalist rantings and shady associates quickly singled him out to people such as Gutiérrez senior as a troublemaker.
It was more than another decade before they crossed paths again, with Castro becoming the new communist leader of Cuba who embarked on the widespread transfer of privately owned land and property into state hands. Gutiérrez senior, meanwhile, was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour as a counterrevolutionary and then fled to Miami with only a single suitcase of possessions, after a secret intervention from a friend high up in the new regime.
“Growing up, my dad would tell me all these stories, bearded revolutionaries in fatigues turning up at the sugar mill offices with submachine guns, saying ‘we own this now, we may compensate you later’. But like all of these other families, we never received any compensation,” he said.
In his modest office in Miami, crammed full of books in English and Spanish about Cuban property issues dating back decades, Gutiérrez maintains records of land and many hundreds of buildings that he says were stolen by the Castro regime.
His family’s two sugar mills, in what are now called the Cienfuegos and Villa Clara provinces, were operated for a while by the government, which kept all of the profits, but Gutiérrez said that he later learned from former workers that they had been dismantled and abandoned early in this new century.
Like the building occupied by Lloyd’s, the family’s properties in Havana have fared much better. The Guardian discovered that one, the former residence of Pakistan’s diplomatic mission, was now rented to an Italian businessman who was refurbishing it with a new swimming pool.
Another Vedado property, an art deco building a short walk from the seafront, is a gallery housing 16,000 works of regional art, where one of the country’s most influential literary magazines is published, having formerly been a hub for Cuba’s post-revolutionary intelligence service, according to a worker.
Then there is the British embassy. The impressively elegant Havana home of the UK ambassador to Cuba, Tim Cole, also appears on the list of contested Gutiérrez-Castaño properties. Like so many others in this upmarket part of town, it is rented out to prestigious clients by Palco, and there is no suggestion that the British government was aware of its history when it signed the lease.
A stroll from the diplomatic neighbourhood leads to the Malecón seafront, home to several prominent properties associated with the Batista era’s most notorious figures and among the first to fall into state hands. Among them is the Riviera, once one of the world’s grandest hotels when it opened in 1957 with 378 rooms, a casino, cabaret, salsa club, swimming pool and gardens.
It was part of the Havana empire of mafia financier Meyer Lansky, who owned eight other hotels, nine casinos and a racetrack. When Castro’s revolutionaries arrived, Lansky, who died in 1983, had to abandon them along with his 10th-floor suite at the Riviera, which was subsequently nationalised. Today, it is a shabby structure with a dingy pool, but the salsa is as timelessly good as the views of the Caribbean.
Further along the coast road is the former Vedado tennis club, where the wealthy elite once whiled away their leisure hours in exclusive comfort. Requisitioned by the state soon after the revolution, it is now the student union for Havana. Similarly, the Havana Yacht Club was taken over by the construction workers’ union and the Havana Golf Club became the University of Arts.
In the residential district of Miramar, to the west of Vedado and near the Russian embassy, is a former residence owned by the Gutiérrez-Castaño family that was initially turned into a teaching centre and then an accounting college. For the last 30 years, it has been used as part of a 400-student primary school named after the Vietnamese revolutionary heroine Vo Thi Thang.
“This is a much better use of the property. It now has a collective benefit, not just for one rich person,” said Livia González, a computer teacher. “Thanks to places like this, every child in Havana has a school within one kilometre, more or less.”
Gutiérrez said that many claimants, a majority of whom are resident in the US anyway, had little interest in returning to Cuba or occupying the properties they were forced to leave behind. “The easiest thing would be to sit back and just collect a check, rather than returning to rebuild and restore the rule of law. Luckily for us, the Revolution has done very little in 50 years. An overwhelming majority of the properties have neither been materially altered nor distributed to the people,” he said.
Gutiérrez added that he and other owners saw some glimmers of light, despite the US government pressing ahead with reforms in its policy towards Cuba, including the reopening of embassies in Washington and Havana, without first addressing the property issue. Almost 6,000 claims approved by the US Department of Justice’s Foreign Settlement Claims Commission, which adjudicated more than $7bn to US companies and individuals confiscated in 1960, have not yet been discussed with Cuban officials.
“There has been no movement in restoring property rights, but while we condemn what the president has done on moral, legal and national security levels, it has undoubtedly pushed the property issue closer to the forefront of this debate,” he said.
Ultimately, however, only the cooperation of a future Cuban government can bring satisfaction to the owners, many claimants believe, although some remain sceptical that will ever happen, despite the recent thaw in relations.
Florida neurosurgeon Javier García-Bengochea was 15 months old in 1960 when his family left Cuba, leaving behind a profitable shipping and warehouse business seized by the state. He told a hearing of the western hemisphere subcommittee of the House committee on foreign affairs last month that Cuba must be made to acknowledge the property owners or any US investment in the country and the normalisation of relations would be illegal.
“Unless the claims are settled, any American enterprise in Cuba will have the same legitimacy as a drug deal,” he said. “Trafficking in stolen property is not economic opportunity. It is not pro-business or normal. It is criminal and immoral.”