Thursday, February 11, 2016
Story by Matthew Hansen
Photography by Ryan Soderlin
Not long ago, Carolyn Chester pasted the bumper sticker on the back of her battered 1999 Honda Accord.
The sticker is a way for the Omaha woman to remember that she’s doing something big when she emails her lawyers and talks to reporters and sends Facebook messages to allies and foes around the country.
The sticker is a reminder to keep fighting: for her money, for her father, for the memory of the long-ago life Fidel Castro snatched away.
“Well behaved women seldom make history,” the bumper sticker says.
“I think that’s absolutely true,” Carolyn says.
Carolyn, a Creighton University employee, is a daughter in one of the 5,913 American families and companies in a legal fight for the homes, businesses and land they lost when Castro seized power and their property in 1959.
And of those 5,913 property claimants, Carolyn might be the loudest. She has testified before Congress. She has blogged and podcasted. She has raised her voice in a fight to force Cuba to repay the American property owners — a fight that, if resolved, could help end the U.S. embargo of Cuba.
She has, in her mind, become a David stuck among three Goliaths — the Obama administration, the Castro government and American big business — who all want the embargo to end as quickly and painlessly and as favorably to themselves as possible. Carolyn wants the embargo to end, too, but not before Fidel Castro admits what he did. Not until he makes things right.
“I want the Cuban government to own up to what they did to my family,” she says. “I won’t stop shouting from the mountaintop until they do.”
Edmund Chester, left, reported for the Associated Press in Havana, Cuba, growing friendly enough with Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, right, that years later he would write Batista's speeches and official biography. Chester was hired away by CBS, he rose to become the powerful network's director of news and the legendary Edward R. Murrow's boss.
Experts in both the United States and Cuba
regard the fight over property rights as a negotiation, an irritating problem that needs resolution before the embargo can end. And a negotiation has indeed begun, they say. Representatives from the Obama administration and the Castro government met in Florida late last year, marking the first time the two countries had publicly acknowledged discussing the property claims.
Copy that Edmund Chester edited for famed CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow. Edmund and Edna passed down mementos of Edmund's career to their children, but couldn't pass down their wedding photos or Edna's wedding dress because they among the possessions seized after the Cuban Revolution.
The experts say some variation of this: Americans who lost Cuban property deserve to be paid, but Cuba will never agree to pay in full, and then tack on 57 years’ worth of interest. Therefore, the governments will compromise on some number between $8 billion — the amount that the U.S. believes is owed — and zero, the number that the Cuban government would surely prefer.
The Brookings Institution recently suggested one such compromise: Cuba would pay $1.9 billion, staggering those payments over a decade and possibly offering other perks to the claimants, like the right to do future business in Cuba.
“It’s going to be a witch of a process,” says Ernesto Hernandez-Cata, a Cuban economics expert and retired senior economist for the International Monetary Fund. “But it’s going to have to be a negotiated solution ... one in which I’m guessing the (Americans) get quite a bit less than 100 percent.”
But bring up that word — compromise — to Carolyn and watch her eyes widen, her cheeks flush, her frustration rise.
Understand that the experts’ bloodless view of the property claims doesn’t jibe with her family’s memory of what happened on Jan. 2, 1959.
Up until that day, her father, Edmund Chester, had built a career and a life tethered to Cuba. He reported for the Associated Press in Havana, growing friendly enough with Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista that years later he would write Batista’s speeches and official biography. Hired away by CBS, he rose to become the powerful network’s director of news — the legendary Edward R. Murrow’s boss. Then he returned to Cuba, bought radio stations, started a public relations business and put down roots he figured would last generations.
He had met his wife, Enna,
while covering an earthquake in Chile, and together the Chilean and the American made a home together in Havana, splitting time between an apartment there and a house in Florida. They had three children, and then in June 1958 Enna gave birth to a fourth. They named her Carolyn.
Over the years, Edmund had bought stock in the Cuban Telephone company. He bought 80 acres of land in Cuba’s fertile Isle of Pines. He had dreams. He wanted to raise children connected to both Cuba and the United States. He wanted to retire and plant an orange grove on his 80 acres. He often told people that his work was in New York and his family was often in Florida. But his life? His life was in Havana.
Edmund Chester, left, and his wife Enna with two of their four children, Cythia Chester, right, and Carolyn Chester as a baby. The family split time in homes in south Florida and Havana, Cuba, until the Cuban revolution in 1959.
It was until Jan. 2, 1959. That day, one day after the Cuban Revolution arrived in Havana, supporters of Fidel Castro ransacked the Chesters’ apartment in the tony Miramar neighborhood. The Chester family got the reports secondhand in Florida: The family’s Buick was gone. The new Castro government was seizing American-owned land on the Isle of Pines. The dream of an orange grove was dead.
They lost everything, including Enna’s wedding dress and decades worth of family photos. But that wasn’t the worst of it, Carolyn says. It was seeing her dad, having lost property and stock, being forced to go back to work in his late 60s. The worst was watching him at the end, after his stroke. He believed that Castro henchmen were after him, lived in fear that they would come to Florida and kidnap his family.
Edmund Chester died on Oct. 14, 1973, at age 76. “The stress of that loss, it made him sick,” Carolyn says quietly.
Carolyn had only the haziest understanding of the family’s Cuban property claim until her mother passed away in 2001. She began to read up, and learned the American government set up a special commission to certify claims of Cuban property taken from American citizens and companies. Many of the 5,913 certified claims involve families like the Chesters. The biggest claims are from American corporations, many with recognizable names: Coca-Cola, Starwood Hotels, Exxon, Colgate. In fact, roughly half of the value of the claims belongs to just 10 American companies.
She read more, and began to believe that many of these companies were hunting for a deal, that in fact many were more interested in doing future business in Cuba than they were in discussing the past. And when a group of lawyers and businessmen approached her about buying her claim — an offer of questionable legality — she got even more suspicious.
She began to believe that neither government really cared about the families affected by the Cuban Revolution, that they were seen as afterthoughts in a push to get big American business back into Cuba.
Edmund Chester, left, and his wife Enna sit on the Malecon in Havana in the 1950s. The couple lost land, stock and family heirlooms when Castro took control of Cuba in 1959.
An eight-day series from The World-Herald
Day One Put aside those old views of Fidel and a Cuba stuck in the 1950s. In large and small ways, this country is changing fast.
Day Two Two women pursue their entrepreneurial dream inside the state-run economy.
Day Three How a $2 weekly service is connecting Cubans to the rest of the world.
Day Four Twisting, turning paths bring two young Cubans to Omaha.
The photographs Photographer Ryan Soderlin takes you on a visual journey through Cuba.
“They saw us as an obstacle,”
Carolyn says. “And so I recognized that and decided, ‘I’m going to be one.’”
Which is why she has contacted her Nebraska representatives in Congress, and met with those who would listen. She found a law firm, Poblete Tamargo, that specializes in foreign property claims. Their lawyers say that the Castro government can easily pay the $8 billion in claims by tapping into financial reserves and borrowing, knowing that the money will be recovered as the Cuban economy heats up when the embargo ends. (Cuba, for its part, points out that the U.S. embargo cost it billions of dollars as well.)
Carolyn read every piece of news she could find and shared things she had learned with other families’ claimants. Over time she became sort of a mother hen for a growing, shifting community of people trying to recover what they believe is rightfully theirs.
And, as Raúl Castro and President Barack Obama made their first tentative steps toward ending the 55-year-old trade embargo, she shifted into high gear. She testified before a congressional committee in June 2015. She fired off late-night emails to reporters and experts she thinks are unfairly portraying the claimants.
“These claims have been nearly forgotten, so it’s important for the claimants to speak up,” says Mauricio Tamargo, a partner in the law firm representing Carolyn and the former chairman of the Justice Department’s Foreign Claims Settlement Commission. “And that’s exactly what Carolyn has done.”
Carolyn says she’s fine with an end to the embargo, but only if the Americans whose property was seized are fairly compensated. Yes, she wants the money that is owed to her siblings and herself, plus interest. But even more, she says she wants to hear that what was done to her family in 1959 was wrong. She needs closure. Stuck among three Goliaths, she knows she can’t fight, not really. She knows all she can do is yell.
“I understand that it’s hard for people to have empathy for me, because it happened so long ago,” she says. “But it doesn’t seem like a long time ago to us. We’re still alive. We are still here.”
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