Resolving U.S. and Cuba Damage Claims

On December 8, the U.S. and Cuba held discussions in Havana about the two countries’ damage claims: (1) U.S. claims to recover damages for U.S. property interests that were expropriated by the Cuban government at the start of the Cuban Revolution in 1959.; (2) U.S. courts’ money judgments against Cuba; (3) Cuba’s claims for alleged damages resulting from the U.S. embargo of Cuba; and (4) Cuba’s alleged damage claims for Cubans personal injuries and deaths from U.S. hostile actions.

This post will briefly examine those claims, the recent U.S.-Cuba discussions on the subject and an analysis of the issues by Washington, D.C.’s Brookings Institution.

Summary of the Claims

  1. Cuba’s Expropriation of U.S. Property[1]

Some 5,913 U.S. corporations and individuals have $1.9 billion worth of claims (without interest) for factories, farms, homes and other assets that were nationalized in Cuba after Fidel Castro’s rebels came to power in 1959. These claims have been registered and validated by the U.S. Justice Department’s Foreign Claims Settlement Commission. They are now worth roughly $8 billion when including 6.0 percent annual interest. These claims (without interest) have been categorized by the Brookings Institution’s report discussed below:

Claimants Claims Amount ($USD)
Corporate 899 1,677,280,771
Individual 5,014 229,199,112
TOTAL 5,913 1,906,479,883

 

Nevertheless, the Brookings’ report identifies these potential issues with respect to the claims validated by the U.S. Commission: (1) Whether to recognize the Commission rulings as a legitimate procedure in which cuba did not participate; (2) Whether to accept or challenge its valuations of lost properties; (3)  Whether Cuba should recognize accumulated interest as awarded by the Commission on its certified claims or whether to negotiate an alternative benchmark interest rate or other formula for partial payments.

2. U.S. Court Judgments Against Cuba[2]

In U.S. courts various plaintiffs have sued the Cuban Government, which did not appear in the cases. As a result the courts entered default judgments against Cuba, now totaling $2 billion.

3. U.S. Embargo of Cuba[3]

In a 2015 report to the United Nations General Assembly, Cuba asserted that the accumulated economic damages from the U.S. economic sanctions had reached $121 billion. The annual report offers some estimates on sectoral damages but does not discuss methodology. An earlier 1992 Cuban statement detailed these estimated cumulative losses among others:: (a) $3.8 billion for losses in the tourist industry; (b) $400 million for losses in the nickel industry; (c) $375 million for the higher costs of freighters; (d) $200 million for the purchase of sugarcane crop equipment to substitute for U.S.-manufactured equipment; and (e) $120 million for the substitution of electric industry equipment

4. Cubans Killed or Injured by Alleged U.S. Hostilities[4]

The Cuban government claims that U.S. “acts of terrorism against Cuba have caused 3,478 deaths and 2,099 disabling injuries.” Examples of such alleged acts include (a) U.S.-supported hostilities in Cuba resulting in 549 deaths between 1959-1965; (b) the Bay of Pigs invasion resulting in 176 deaths and over 300 wounded of whom 50 were left incapacitated; (c) the explosion of the French vessel La Coubre on March 4, 1960 in Havana Harbor, resulting in 101 deaths including some French sailors; (d) the terrorist bombing of Cuban Airlines Flight 455 in 1976 killing all 73 persons on board including 57 Cubans; (e) the September 11, 1980 assassination of Cuban diplomat Félix García Rodriguez in New York City; (f) Numerous aggressions from the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo resulting in the deaths of Cuban citizens; and (g) suspicions that the U.S. employed biological warfare to spread fatal dengue fever in Cuba.

Recent U.S.-Cuba Discussions[5]

Immediately before the December 8 discussions, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said the U.S. expected this to be “a first step in what we expect to be a long and complex process, but the United States views the resolution of outstanding claims as a top priority for normalization.”

Afterwards a U.S official said that reaching a settlement of these claims was “a top priority” for the U.S. and that these talks were “fruitful” and would continue in 2016. This official also said that the U.S. had provided information on the additional $2 billion in judgments awarded to plaintiffs who had sued the Cuban government in U.S. courts, proceedings that ­Havana does not recognize.

Other than the above sketchy summary, very little has publicly emerged about the specifics of the talks. It sounds as if the discussions were akin to the pretrial discovery process in U.S. civil lawsuits when parties learn about each other’s evidence and arguments.

A Cuba legal expert, Pedro Freyre, said, “It’s the first time the two countries are going back to look at this history and try to sort out a system for fixing it.” The Cubans, he added, were “very tough, very clever” in such negotiations.

Brookings Institution’s Analysis[6]

Richard Feinberg
Richard Feinberg

On the same day as the U.S.-Cuba discussions (December 8), the Brookings Institution released a cogent report on the subject by Richard Feinberg, a nonresident senior fellow in Brookings’ Latin American Initiative. [7]

Introducing the report at a press conference, Feinberg said, “The convening of these talks in Havana [is] a major milestone in the process of gradual full normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba, especially important with regard to commercial relations. Property ownership and claims are at the strategic heart of the Cuban revolution, dating from the early 1960s and also a major cause, perhaps the major cause, of the conflict between the United States and the Cuban revolution. The seizure of U.S. properties was the proximate cause of the imposition of U.S. economic sanctions back in the early 1960s.” These talks are of “strategic importance in the bilateral relationship.”

Feinberg also emphasized that both the U.S. and Cuba “agree on the principle of compensation” for expropriation of property.” Indeed, he said, to do so is in Cuba’s national interest. It “wants to demonstrate [that] it is not a rogue nation . . . [that] it is a nation of laws” and it “wants to remove major irritants to its international diplomacy and commercial relations” and “to attract international investment.”

Another point made by Feinberg was Cuba was not so poor that it could not pay any compensation, especially if the payments were spread out over time, as seems likely.

In addition to setting forth information about the above claims, the report examined the following ways of resolving these claims.

  1. The Grand Bargain

The Report asserts that “a much more promising alternative approach” is “to take advantage of the very size and complexity of the conflicting claims and to make their resolution the centerpiece of a grand bargain that would resolve some of the other remaining points of tension between the two nations, and embrace an ambitious, forward-looking development strategy for Cuba.”

In such a grand bargain, “the settlement of U.S. claims could be wrapped in a package of economic opportunities for Cuba. Importantly, the United States could further relax its economic sanctions (amending or repealing Helms-Burton), providing more trade and investment opportunities – and the capacity for Cuba to earn the foreign exchange needed to service debt obligations. In turn, Cuba will have to accelerate and deepen its economic reforms, to offer a more attractive business environment for investors and exporters. Politically, the Cuban government could present a significant softening of the U.S. embargo as a victory, offsetting any concessions made in the claims negotiations. A comprehensive package might also be more attractive to the U.S. Congress; formal Congressional consent would enhance the measures’ legitimacy and durability and help to close off any court challenges, should some claimants be unsatisfied with the final settlement.”

“The [U.S.] strategic goals in a massive claims resolution process must be political: to heal the deep wounds of past conflicts, to lay foundations for peaceful coexistence and the non-violent resolution of disputes, to avoid jeopardizing fiscal balances and crippling debt burdens, to build investor confidence and international reputation, and to help render the Cuban economy more open and competitive. . . . In the interests of both Cuba and the United States, the twentieth-century trauma of massive property seizures should be transformed into a twenty-first century economic development opportunity.”

“Wrapping a claims settlement within a more sweeping diplomatic package could have large advantages. A robust accord could help overcome long-simmering bilateral animosities and reconcile the fractured Cuban family. Potentially embarrassing ‘concessions’ by either party could be masked by larger victories on more weighty or emotive issues. What to some might appear the unseemly materialism or inequity of property claims would be subsumed within a higher-toned humanitarian achievement. Having turned the page on a half-century long era of conflict, Cuban society could begin in earnest on a new path toward social peace and shared prosperity. The claims settlement, which would bolster investor confidence, could also be linked to a reformed economic development model for Cuba actively supported by the international community.”

2. Lump-Sum Settlement

Separate resolution of the damage claims could be done in a lump-sum settlement, whereby “the two governments negotiate a total amount of financial compensation that is transferred in a lump-sum or global indemnity to the plaintiff government which in turn assumes the responsibility to distribute the transferred monies among its national claimants.” Such a settlement would provide “greater efficiency in coping with large numbers of claims; enhanced consistency in the administration and adjudication of claims; promoting fairness among claimants in setting criteria for evaluating claims and distributing awards; and upholding professionalism and integrity in the national claims commission.” In addition, sometimes lump-sum arrangements “allow the two governments to address other matters, such as broader investment and trade relations.”

3. Two-Tier Resolution

Another way for separate resolution of the U.S. expropriation damage claims is what Brookings calls a two-tier solution, “whereby corporate claimants can choose either to seek creative bargains, or join individual claimants in a lump-sum settlement.”

The 5,014 individual claims validated by the U.S. Commission total about $229 million (without interest). Of these, only 39 amount to over $1 million each while only four were valued at over $5 million. A lump-sum cash settlement of these claims could be shared share equitably by all or with caps on those over a certain figure, such as $ 1 million.

The 899 corporate claims are heavily concentrated: the top 10 corporate claims are valued at nearly $1 billion while the top 50 at $1.5 billion. “The corporate claimants could be given the opportunity to be included in a lump-sum settlement—albeit possibly facing an equity hair-cut to limit the burden on Cuba and to ensure a minimum payment to the smaller claimants—or to ‘opt out’ of the general settlement and instead seek alternative remedies” in Cuba, such as a voucher for new investment; a right to operate a new business; a final project authorization for a new venture; a preferred acquisition right for a venture; Cuba sovereign bonds; and restoration of properties.

Conclusion

Although I hope that the Brookings’s “grand bargain” or more limited negotiated solution is reached, a Miami Herald article emphasizes the difficulties in reaching any settlement. First, some of the claims that were validated by the U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission could be stricken from the list that the U.S. may negotiate if the claims have not always been owned by a U.S. citizen or business. Second, the U.S. government is not authorized to negotiate the previously mentioned U.S. courts’ default judgments against Cuba. As a result, U.S. attorneys for the plaintiffs in those cases could seek to seize any assets in the U.S. of the Cuban government such as a Cuban plane or ship to satisfy the outstanding judgments. Third, Cuba also has to fear that any payment of U.S. claimants for expropriated property will invite demands for similar payments by Cuban exiles around the world and by Spanish claimants after some Spanish courts have ruled that Spain’s 1986 settlement of such claims with Cuba is not binding on at least some Spanish claimants. Fourth, the time to complete such a settlement at the end of the Obama Administration is rapidly shrinking, and a new administration in January 2017 may not be as willing to do such a deal.[8]

I, therefore, reiterate the solution proposed in a prior post: an agreement by the two countries to submit all of their damage claims against each other for resolution to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague in the Netherlands under its Arbitration Rules 2012 before a panel of three or five arbitrators.[9]

My experience as a lawyer who handled business disputes in U.S. courts and in international arbitrations leads me to believe that arbitration is the appropriate way to resolve these claims by the two governments. The International Court of Arbitration was established in the late 19thcentury to resolve disputes between governments. It would be a third-party, neutral administrator of the proceedings and the arbitrators who would be selected would also be neutral. Finally it has an existing set of arbitration rules and procedures. Moreover, in the arbitration process, both sides would gain a better understanding of the opponent’s evidence and argument that could lead to a settlement before the arbitrators would be asked to render an award.

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[1] Brookings, Reconciling U.S. Property Claims in Cuba: Transforming Trauma into Opportunity (Dec. 2015); Resolution of U.S. and Cuba’s Damage Claims (April 6, 2015).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.; U.N. General Assembly Again Condemns U.S. Embargo of Cuba (Oct. 30, 2014).

[4] Brookings, Reconciling U.S. Property Claims in Cuba: Transforming Trauma into Opportunity (Dec. 2015).

[5] Robles, Cuba and U.S. to Discuss Settling Claims on Property, N.Y. times (Dec. 4, 2015); U.S. State Dep’t, Daily Press Briefing (Dec. 7, 2015); U.S. State Dep’t, Press Release: United States and Cuba Hold Claims Talks in Havana (Dec. 7, 2015); Reuters, U.S., Cuba to Negotiate Billions in Claims Against Each Other, N.Y. Times (Dec. 7, 2015); Assoc. Press, Cuba, US Begins Talks on Confiscated Property, Damages,, N.Y. Times (Dec. 8, 2015); Miroff, In major breakthrough, Cuba and U.S. discuss $1.9 billion in property claims, Wash. Post (Dec. 8, 2015); Schwartz, U.S., Cuba Hold First Talks on Rival Claims, W.S.J. (Dec. 8, 2015); Briefing on compensation held between the governments of Cuba and the United States, Granma (Dec. 9, 2015).

[6] Brookings, Reconciling U.S. Property Claims in Cuba: Transforming Trauma into Opportunity (Dec. 8, 2015); Feinberg, Reconciling U.S. Property Claims in Cuba (Dec. 2015); Brookings Institution, Cuba Media Roundtable (Dec. 8, 2015).

[7] Brookings is a non-governmental organization that “brings together more than 300 leading experts in government and academia from all over the world who provide the highest quality research, policy recommendations and analysis on a full range of public policy issues.” Feinberg is a professor of international political economy in the School of Global Policy and Strategy (formerly the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies) at the University of California, San Diego. Previously, Feinberg served as special assistant to President Clinton for National Security Affairs and senior director of the National Security Council’s Office of Inter-American Affairs; his other government positions include positions on the policy planning staff of the U.S. Department of State and in the Office of International Affairs in the U.S. Treasury Department.

[8] Torres & Garvin, Claim game: U.S., Cuba try to hash out differences over property, Miami Herald (Dec. 12, 2015).

[9] Resolution of U.S. and Cuba’s Damage Claims (April 15, 2015).

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

3 thoughts on “Resolving U.S. and Cuba Damage Claims”

  1. Comment: Additional Details About U.S. and Cuba’s Damage Claims

    More article have emerged about some of the damage claims that were discussed by the U.S. and Cuba on December 8 in Havana.

    In the discussions the U.S. provided information, and presumably including copies of court papers, about 10 state and federal court judgments American courts have levied against the Cuban government, totaling $2 billion. In addition, the U.S. provided information about “some claims of the U.S. government against Cuba.”

    These private civil cases were filed under a 1996 federal statute creating an exception to the principle of foreign sovereign immunity for suits against any government on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, which included Cuba until earlier this year. A dozen or so Americans filed suits, and because Cuba refused to defend itself in U.S. courts, most of them won whopping default judgments. Some of the early judgments were paid out of money owed by AT&T and other American firms to the Cuban state telephone company that had been frozen in an escrow account. But that money ran out, and more than $3 billion is still owed.

    Cuba also has at least one default judgment entered by one of its courts in a lawsuit against the U.S. Government. “In 1999, a Cuban court found the United States government liable for deaths and damages caused by America’s “aggressive policies” against the island — namely, the Bay of Pigs invasion and the trade embargo prohibiting American citizens and companies from doing business in Cuba.” The court’s judgment ordered the U.S. to pay $181 billion in damages.

    Earlier this year one of my blog posts discussed an article in Granma, Cuba’s newspaper about a Cuban court’s entering default judgments against the U.S. in two cases totaling $118 billion. Presumably this iis a reference to the same case(s) mentioned in the /robles article.

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    Torres & Garvin, Claim game: U.S., Cuba try to hash out differences over property, Miami Herald (Dec. 12, 2015), http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/cuba/article49483160.html; Robles, In Talks Over Seized U.S. Property, Havana Counters with Own Claim, N.Y. times (Dec. 13, 2015) http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/14/world/americas/talks-begin-in-cuba-on-confiscated-us-property-worth-billions.html?_r=0; Old Cuban Court Judgment for Money Damages Against the U.S. Government (May 18, 2015), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2015/05/18/old-cuban-court-judgment-for-money-damages-against-the-u-s-government.

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