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"We believe something is going to happen' soon

American claims to property expropriated by the Cuban government more than 30 years ago are still pending, and many former owners have renewed hope that they will be compensated for their lost sugar mills, cement plants, railroads and Chevrolets.

"We believe something is going to happen in the near future . . . the next year or so," said David Wallace, chairman of the Joint Corporate Committee on Cuba Claims and chairman of Lone Star Industries, a cement company based in Stamford, Conn. Lone Star's $24.9-million claim for lost Cuban property includes a railroad and large cement plant that reportedly is still operating in the town of Mariel.

Organized in 1975, the claims committee was dormant for several years but has become active again, Wallace said. Its members hope that the end of the Cold War has made it possible to improve U.S. relations either with the present Cuban government or with its successor.

The committee concentrates on its claims, Wallace hastened to say, not politics. "In essence we had our property stolen _ somehow or other that issue has to be addressed. It would be an absolute moral outrage if the U.S. government failed to deal with these claims when they deal with Cuba."

From 1964 to 1972, 5,911 claims were certified by the U.S. government and bound into 80 volumes in a set of floor-to-ceiling shelves in the U.S. Justice Department. Although the Cuban and U.S. governments agree that the claims should be settled, they have not negotiated them. Cuba has settled claims from all other countries whose citizens had property expropriated.

Since 70 percent of Cuba's trade was with the United States before the 1959 revolution, American individuals and companies had by far the largest foreign claims, and no country has ever nationalized as much American property as Cuba. Of 162 mills producing Cuba's biggest export _ sugar _ at the time of the revolution, 35 were American-owned, and 22 percent of Cuban farmland was in U.S. hands.

The 5,911 claims from American companies and individuals initially were valued at $1.8-billion _ between $5-billion and $6-billion now, with interest. Most of the total, $1.6-billion of the original amount, was claimed by companies.

"It's academic," said David Bradley, chief counsel of the U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, referring to the dollar figure. "Where are they (Cubans) going to get the money?"

Suffering economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba has almost no cash reserves. Instead, the Cuban government conceivably could return the property, pay part of the claims or offer vouchers for the purchase of Cuban property. The Castro government, which runs an almost entirely state-owned economy, has made no such proposals.

Some companies and individuals want their property back. Others, no longer able or willing to operate businesses in Cuba, would rather take cash. "There is a lot of divergency within my own committee as to how we would be compensated," Wallace said. "It will be complex."

As of 1979, 12 percent of the value of the claims had been written off against corporate taxes, according to James Powers, a Lone Star vice president who now serves on the claims committee. He said U.S. tax laws restrict deductions for foreign losses.

Jaime Suchlicki, a University of Miami professor of international studies who has written reports for companies on the state of their old holdings in Cuba, said many want to reclaim their property. "Texaco would like to go back and rebuild their refinery," he said. "They don't want payment." Anheuser-Busch, he said, also hopes to go back to Cuba.

The claims are very unlikely to be settled under the present U.S. and Cuban governments. Prensa Latina, the Cuban government news agency, revived the issue as a political trial balloon last Monday, quoting a Cuban official who said his government was prepared to discuss expropriated American property. That has been the Cuban position for more than a decade.

As in the past, Cuba would ask for concessions in return, and the U.S. government likely would refuse.

"This is part of the dispute between Cuba and the United States," said Jose Luis Ponce, first secretary of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, Cuba's equivalent of an embassy. "One could never discuss the claims of these companies . . . without taking into account the damage that the blockade (U.S. embargo) has done to Cuba."

Cuba might ask for embargo reparations and would almost certainly ask for the embargo to be lifted. The Castro government also wants the United States to close its naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and wants U.S. broadcasts to Cuba over Radio and TV Marti stopped.

By contrast, the Washington-based Institute for U.S.-Cuba Relations argued in a report published last month that the embargo should not be lifted until an agreement is firmly in place "with a freely elected, post-Castro government for the full restitution of U.S. claims."

If and when there are negotiations on the confiscated property, American claims may come before those of Cuban exiles. That's because U.S. claims have been cataloged and certified, unlike the Cuban claims; because unresolved American claims would mar U.S.-Cuba relations; and because international law requires that a state compensate foreigners for confiscated property, but not nationals. "A state can do to its own nationals as it pleases," said Bradley.