Despite restoring relations with US, Cuba may owe billions for asset grabs

US claims against Cuba

Monday marked the historic reopening of the Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C., and the renewal of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. But some people weren't so keen to see the Cuban flag hoisted in the nation's capitol.

Outstanding claims for property lost in the early 1960s after Fidel Castro's rise to power in 1959 and subsequent nationalization of private assets are estimated to stand at $7 billion to $8 billion.

While relations may have been restored, the U.S. embargo remains in place—and settling those claims is a prerequisite to lifting the export ban in its entirety. The U.S. earlier loosened some restrictions around travel and trade with Cuba.

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Jason Poblete, a sanctions specialist and claims attorney, said some progress has been made, but politicians acted too soon in allowing the Cuban embassy to reopen.

"There's a lot of ways to do this. I just think that folks need to get a little more serious about it. And we had hoped that instead of opening the embassy ahead of time, they would have done some of this beforehand," the co-founder of Poblete Tamargo said Monday in an interview on CNBC's "Power Lunch."

Poblete explained that a program to settle such claims has been in place since 1949, and there are a number of precedents for agreements, including settlements for property appropriated in the former East Germany and Vietnam.

What remains in question is how much Cuba can afford to return to claimants. The country's GDP is estimated at $128.5 billion, placing it at No. 76 in the CIA World Factbook's rank of purchasing power, just below the Dominican Republic and Kenya and slightly ahead of Tunisia and Bulgaria.

The United States appears prepared to drive a hard bargain.

"It's the dollar amount that people are going to start quibbling about, but the position that was addressed ... two weeks ago in a congressional hearing made clear that we're going to start from 100 cents on the dollar," Poblete said.

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Not all claims are created equally, either. The United States will prioritize certified claims, or those made by the U.S. government and citizens, while those filed by individuals who were not U.S. persons at the time of seizure will be left to the current or future Cuban government to address.

Meanwhile, the Cuban government claims it is owed reparations to offset the impact of a decadeslong U.S. embargo.