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Cuban exiles hope to get property back

Second of two parts.

The Bacardi company makes rivers of rum in countries worldwide, but Manuel Jorge Cutillas, Bacardi's chairman, still wants to get his hands on one relatively small, antiquated distillery: his family's old plant in eastern Cuba.

"If we have a chance . . . we're going to go back and take our business somehow," he said. Like Cutillas, many Cuban exiles are hoping that Cuba's present economic crisis means they soon will be able to go back to the island and perhaps reclaim property expropriated more than 30 years ago.

"I still have that . . . feeling," he said. Even young Cuban-Americans, lured by the chance to make profits, describe longing for the Cuba they have never seen.

The Cuban government calls emigres "worms" who have "abandoned" the country, so most of the property left by hundreds of thousands of Cubans departing since 1959 was confiscated. None of the property is likely to be returned by Fidel Castro's government, but most Cubans abroad think Castro soon will fall under the weight of the collapsed Soviet bloc.

Long-dormant associations formed outside Cuba like the Sugar Mill Owners of Cuba, the Cuban Mine and Petroleum Association, the Bankers of Cuba and the Cattlemen of Cuba are reviving and sending delegates to Washington and Miami conferences on that country's future.

Funds have been set up to invest in Cuba as soon as economic and political conditions permit. A new foundation has begun studying Eastern European countries' attempts to deal with expropriated property as possible models for Cuba.

"It's something you really have to deal with," said J. P. Rathbone, research secretary of the London-based Sociedad Economica foundation. "At the same time nobody knows how it's going to be resolved."

For the moment, that is the crux of the debate _ whether to return property to its previous owners. Few exiles expect the return of their old houses, which are now mostly inhabited by other people who have been given non-transferable titles. But virtually all industrial and commercial property is owned by the Cuban state, so it might be more easily redistributed.

"That's the . . . hot-ticket item _ the one that will explode as soon as the dust settles in Cuba," said Pedro Freyre, a corporate lawyer who is co-chairman of the Trading with Cuba committee of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.

The issue already is sensitive. When University of Miami professor Jaime Suchlicki and Miami Metro Commissioner Barry Schreiber tried to set up an Expropriated Cuban Properties Registry in 1990, they dropped the project almost immediately. "There was such a commotion in this town," Suchlicki said. "Evidently Fidel used it to whip up the opposition to the exiles in Cuba (to paint them as) all capitalists ready to rape Cuba."

In Cuba, the return of exiles is a delicate subject, as it implies the fall of the government. Cubans interviewed on a recent trip gave varying opinions, from indignant opposition to welcome for Cuban exile capitalists if they can improve the economy.

For now there is no registry, as for American expropriated property (see related story), and no plan.

Many former owners, like Cutillas, say their property simply should be given back to them. Cutillas' family made Bacardi rum in Cuba until the revolution. When they left Cuba they took the name, began making rum abroad and built a multibillion-dollar worldwide company. Cuba now makes Havana Club brand rum in the old Bacardi distillery.

"The return of all property to its previous owners is indispensable," said Alfredo Blanco, vice president of the Association of Sugar Mill Owners of Cuba, whose family owned two mills.

Some cases are complicated. Holdings like retail stores and banks have disappeared in Cuba's state-run economy. Other property has completely changed: A cattle rancher might return to find a hospital built amid his fields. And many former owners have died, leaving as many as a dozen different heirs. Many of those consider themselves Americans, are thoroughly settled into life in the United States, and do not plan to return to Cuba.

"Let's take our own case," said Tony Costa, whose father owned 2,000 to 3,000 acres of farmland in Pinar del Rio province. "My father has passed away. We are four children with four wives and each one has three or four children. Who is going to claim it?"

He will not seek return of the land, he said.

"The situation in Cuba is going to be so chaotic and so desperate that it would be a crime to delay getting the economy going because you get entangled in the claims of property," he said. "Privatization should proceed by a means that accomplishes it as soon as possible."

Means proposed so far by the small horde of lawyers, businessmen and academics studying the subject include compensating former property owners with bonds or vouchers that could be used to buy any Cuban property including their own. Another possibility would be to hold a property auction, giving former owners preference or the right to match final bids.

Cutillas, the 60-year-old chairman of Bacardi Ltd., suggested that the return of property be tied to "commitment to re-develop the business." The government might ask, "Tell me what your plans are, how much you're willing to invest," he said, and ask former owners without much capital to find richer partners.

Rathbone's foundation has studied Eastern European countries' experiments. In general, he said, restitution has slowed privatization. "Dispute of ownership remains the single largest factor delaying investments in the Eastern states," he wrote.

"Germany, which has gone ahead with the most generous restitution program," has "encouraged people to concentrate on dividing the spoils rather than reviving the economy," Rathbone said.

Former property owners disagree. Nicolas Gutierrez, a 29-year-old Miami lawyer whose family owned a Cuban bank, an insurance company, two sugar mills, a rice mill, a coffee plantation and cattle ranches, said his family can run its old concerns best. He and his cousins will divide up the work when the time comes, he said.

A corporate lawyer who came to the United States at age 2, Gutierrez conceded he doesn't know much about the sugar business, but he has been learning and plans to hire knowledgeable technicians. Young Cuban-Americans will have a chance to rebuild the country, Gutierrez said. "It's a rendezvous with history. The sky's the limit."

Cuban-Americans need not live in Cuba to do business there, since the island is less than an hour's plane ride from Florida. This distinguishes Cuba from Nicaragua, El Salvador or Eastern Europe, where distances are greater and emigres have had to choose between staying abroad and returning.

Blanco, 75, knew his family's sugar mills well, and he keeps track of them by interviewing visitors and emigres from Cuba who have worked in the mills recently. He said he is not sure he will be able to make them profitable again. "If you give me conditions in which I can prosper," he said, "I'll go back."

The Cuban sugar business, by far Cuba's biggest industry, will be seriously hampered compared to the past. Before the revolution, the United States bought up most of Cuba's crop under preferential price quotas, and after the revolution the Soviet Union also gave Cuba very generous trading terms, which have now disappeared. The old U.S. quota for Cuban sugar has been divided up among other sugar-producing countries and is unlikely to be reinstated.

"Although democracy may come," Blanco said, "I want to see how democracy will create jobs."