CubaNews / February 2005
By Larry Luxner
It’s been 40 years, and prominent Cuban-American attorney Mauricio Tamargo still can’t forget the rats.
Born in Havana, Tamargo was raised on a prosperous farm near Holguín that produced rice, corn, bananas and dairy cattle. In 1959, when he was four years old, the Castro regime came to power and confiscated the family farm. Two years later, Mauricio, his parents and his seven brothers and sisters fled to Miami, eventually settling in the backwater town of Pahokee, Fla.
“My dad worked two shifts at a sugar mill, driving a truck,” he recalled. “We shared a small three-room cabin at the end of a cropdusting runway. One room was always infested with rats, so my mom would move the babies around to confuse the rats.”
These days, rodents are no longer the problem — but the memory of the confiscation never quite left him.
Perhaps it’s poetic justice that Tamargo, 47, is today chairman of the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, one of two independent agencies administered by the Depart-ment of Justice (the other is the U.S. Parole Commission).
The FCSC’s role is to adjudicate claims by American citizens whose properties have been seized without compensation by foreign governments.
“We have administered 47 different claims programs over our 50-year history,” he told CubaNews. “A claims program is a program in which all Americans who have a claim against a particular foreign government — whether it’s Cuba, Germany or Iran — have the opportunity to file with our office. I chair the commission, and I’m one of three judges. It’s a tribunal, and we make a decision. We adjudicate the claim and declare how much this U.S. national needs to be compensated by the offending country.”
In 1964, ten years after the FCSC’s establishment, Congress amended the Foreign Claims Settlement Act to establish a Cuban claims program.
Between 1966 and 1972, that program received 8,816 claims, eventually certifying 5,911 claimants whose loss was fixed at around $1.85 billion. If interest were included at the internationally recognized annual rate of 6%, those claims would today be worth over $6.8 billion.
“We certify the total figure due our U.S. nationals, and the State Department then has the duty to negotiate a settlement,” said Tamargo. “Once that settlement is reached, the offending country pays the amount to us, and we disburse those funds to all our certified U.S. claimants.”
More than 80% of the certified claims concern commercial land and debts, he said.
“We’re guided by international law in making our rulings. International law requires that all foreign nationals who lose property in a country are due compensation for that property. For example, if Iran confiscates a private home owned by an American citizen, that citizen has a right to be compensated.”
Tamargo, who earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Miami and went to law school in Birmingham, spent 13 years as chief of staff for Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). He was nominated for his current position in July 2001, and was confirmed by the Senate in February 2002 to complete a recess term that had a year and a half to go.
President Bush has since reappointed Tamargo to a full three-year term expiring in 2006. As such, Tamargo is one of the top-ranking Cuban-Americans in the Bush administration.
“I’m very honored that the president called on me to serve in this capacity,” he told CubaNews. “I must say that I believe property rights are important. If not a human right, it is an essential right that every human should have. The treatment of one’s property is by extension a treatment of one’s labor and sweat. One can argue that without that right, we are slaves.”
Tamargo adds: “I do idenfity with those who have had property taken from them, although they still need to prove their case.”
The FCSC chief said that, regardless of his personal experiences in Cuba, he has vowed “to be as fair and impartial as possible in administering this commission and protecting the rights of U.S. nationals who have suffered harm or injury, regardless of what country we’re talking about.”
In its heyday, the FCSC had as many as 900 employees; today it has 11 staffers, and operates on a budget of around $1.3 million. The Cuban program ran until 1973, after which no more claims were heard.
“Of the 47 claims programs, all have ended in a settlement negotiation agreement except for Cuba,” he said.
Last year, Tamargo’s office helped prepare a hefty report to the White House entitled “Assistance to a Free Cuba.” One chapter deals with nothing but certified claims and offers suggestions on how a post-Castro government might sort it all out.
“The Germans and several [former Communist] countries in Eastern Europe went through a similar situation, where they had a long period of confiscated property,” he said. “They had to resolve different chains of title, and eliminate clouds on title. Claimants were given an opportunity to seek restitution of the property, but in Germany, they had the benefit of more funds in the German treasury to help sort out this problem than is likely to exist when the Cuban transition begins.”
Tamargo’s office is currently supervising an Albanian claims program as well. Following World War II, Albania’s Marxist dictatorship, led by Enver Hoxha, seized properties belonging to Albanians, some of whom had U.S. citizenship as a result of having lived in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s.
“The Albanian government, knowing there are claims by Americans against it, gave us $2 million, of which 91 claimants have been paid. We still have $1.2 million to award,” he said.
“In the case of Cuba, there are third parties that have made joint ventures with the Cuban government and have invested money in these properties and buildings. What is done with those will be up to the Cuban government to resolve.”
What about the insistence by Cuban exiles that they should be allowed to sue the Castro regime in U.S. federal court over expropriated property, even though they were not U.S. citizens at the time of the seizure?
“In all our programs,” he said, “it’s always been the case that you had to have been an American citizen at the time you suffered your loss. It’s difficult to have to explain this to people over and over.”
He added that Title III of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act “creates another avenue of relief separate from ours. It allows for private right of action in U.S. federal court for anyone who later became an American citizen, and whose property is currently being trafficked in.”
Yet this provision has been waived by the last three presidents, most recently by Bush on Jan. 14, citing “national interests.”
Resolution of the Cuba claims issue, says Tamargo, is of vital importance to the island’s future economic viability. “Investors will not be eager to invest in Cuba without seeing how this issue is resolved,” he said, though he declined to elaborate too much on this point.
“This commission’s purpose is to seek compensation to those U.S. nationals who are due compensation. It’s up to the Cuban government as to how to resolve this issue.”
Asked if the United States has ever conducted behind-the-scenes talks with Cuba over expropriated property, Tamargo suggested that we “ask the State Department.”
Nevertheless, Cuba’s prominence could fade in comparison to the next big program for FCSC: Iraq. Undoubtedly, Saddam Hussein confiscated lots of private property while ruling his country, and once things quiet down, many Iraqi-Americans are expected to come forward with claims of their own against the former dictatorship.
“If that happens, it’ll be larger than the Cuba program, which is the largest program this commission has ever administered,” he said.
In the meantime, Tamargo doesn’t expect much to happen with claims against Cuba as long as Fidel Castro remains in power.
“Forty-five years have passed, and the Cuban government doesn’t show any sign of interest in resolving this issue,” he told us. “The spirit needs to be willing.” Tamargo adds that he no longer has family in Cuba and has no desire to the land of his birth — at least “not until there’s a change in the Cuban government.”