The Other Reparations Debate: Cuba

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader writes:

My father is Cuban. He was born very very rich. Fidel Castro took over, and as a result, my father became very poor. One of the reasons we no longer trade with Cuba is because Cuba nationalized property belonging to Americans. My father’s family businesses and properties were seized while my father was still alive. If this were not the case, today I would be a very rich man, being that my father is the eldest male child. Instead, I grew up poor and eligible for food stamps.

Now that our relationship with Cuba is thawing, this nationalization issue has returned. People in Cuba are hurt by our trade embargo, and beginning trade would really help the average Cuban citizen. One of the biggest sticking points is reparations for seized property.

Here’s a brief overview of that issue:

When Fidel Castro’s guerrillas swept dictator Fulgencio Batista from power in 1959, the new regime quickly converted the island’s governance to a communist system and nationalized billions of dollars in private property, from small homes and farms to foreign-owned utilities, hotels, sugar cane estates and other corporate assets. Castro settled property claims with England, Spain, Mexico and others, but negotiations with the U.S. ended in 1960 when President John F. Kennedy barred Americans from buying from or selling to Cuba. The embargo came in response to Castro’s seizure of refineries owned by U.S. companies that refused, under Kennedy’s order, to process Soviet oil.

More than 5,900 claims with an initial value of $1.9 billion have been certified by the Justice Department’s Foreign Settlement Claims Commission, and estimates put their current value, with interest, at more than $7 billion. Notably, those claims do not include losses by Cubans who later fled to the U.S.

And now, the current Castro government is calling for reparations of their own, demanding from the U.S. compensation for the half-century embargo. Back to our reader:

I under no circumstances expect to get paid for the millions my father lost to nationalization. I think logistically this would be nearly impossible to achieve and would end up with grifters getting paid and people with rightful claims being denied. That is why I think getting stuck on this would be very selfish and would hurt people that most need the help.   

In that sense it shares a parallel with Ta-Nehisi and his focus on unrealistic reparations for an aggrieved group rather than focusing on the common good. Slavery reparations have the same difficulties, except the timespan is no longer my father; it is a series of father’s fathers going back more than 150 years. In this time period people have immigrated who appear no different than those that suffered under slavery. There have been generations of people living between them. When I sit here and think whether it would be possible to pay off only the people who were born from former slaves the answer is obviously “no.”

On top of that, some of those children of slaves were also children of slave owners. Should they be paying themselves reparations? What about people who immigrated after? These questions go on and on with these thorny questions in perpetuity with no clear answer.

Then the next question comes: Who should pay? You cannot identify just the lineage of slave owners and punish them. You will end up taking from everyone to give to some who may or may not deserve it.

The idea of reparations for nationalized property is currently hurting people by preventing normalization of trade with Cuba. The idea of reparations for slavery is currently preventing the return of racial harmony and a focus on programs that help all without regard to race.  

Any outcome of slavery reparations would result in racist ends, as reparations would take from all regardless of sin and pay to those regardless of merit. This is due to an inability to actually punish slave owners and reward former slaves due to how long ago this practice was.

So it would literally be racism. Two wrongs do not make a right. You cannot ameliorate historic persecution with contemporary persecution.

Your thoughts? Drop us an email and we’ll do our best to weave it into the ongoing debate.