Will the poorest Cubans whose properties were seized be indemnified? / Cubanet, Jose Hugo Fernandez

Photo:Havana’s Chinatown prior to 1959
Photo: Havana’s Chinatown prior to 1959

Cubanet, José Hugo Fernández, Havana, 24 December 2014 – How many – and which – private properties seized by the regime could be returned to their owners or their descendants? Alternatively, how many indemnifications could there be once the US embargo is finally lifted? This topic has once again taken its place in our discussions, online and on the ground. Once again, we are given to speculate about everything pertaining to major enterprises, and North American and Cuban landowners.

Curiously, there is less talk about the small businesses. Those were the ones whose owners worked hard all their lives, never suspecting the disrespect and cruel coldness with which the Revolutionary government would expropriate them. These entrepreneurs were forced to abandon their establishments and take nothing but the clothes on their backs. Begging the pardon of the large investors who saw their assets taken away, it seems to me much more crucial to consider the tragedy of these small business owners. I believe that now that “our” dictatorship is trying to make a place for itself among “normal” governments, it should start with the intent to mitigate (being that it cannot erase) this shameful chapter in our history, by at least indemnifying the descendants of the entrepreneurs.

They must number in the hundreds of thousands, if one considers that each town, each neighborhood, and often each street, hosted swarms of small businesses owned by persons of modest means, who built them up penny by penny with the sweat of their brow.

By way of illustration, it would perhaps suffice to cite the example of the honest and hardworking business owners of Havana’s Chinatown – just one case among millions, but one which helps to clarify the issue because of being concentrated in a small area.

By 1959, a little more than a century had passed since the arrival of the Chinese to Cuba as quasi-slaves. The only property owned by each and all of them upon disembarking here was their family name – and even this they had to give up. Even so, when Fidel Castro took power, Havana’s was probably the most important Chinatown in the continent.

The neighborhood boasted its own Bank of China, with $10-million in assets – a true fortune in those days. It had a network of import businesses that directly brought in products from Asia to be used and sold here. There was a Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, which was connected to a considerable number of entrepreneurial associations, such as the Union of Commercial Retailers. It would be exhausting to list the vast number of dining establishments – some world-famous – and other businesses providing the most diverse services, that were located in this neighborhood.

Havana's Chinatown today
Havana’s Chinatown today (photo by author)

The Chinese population of Havana operated its own health care system, endowed with medical practices and laboratories, as well as a fully-equipped clinic and patient pavilions, and a broad network of pharmacies. Three independent newspapers, three radio stations, four cinemas, a theater, an athletic club, a retirement home, a cemetery, multiple societies and recreation centers – all of these composed the cultural life of the neighborhood. In short, as I have indicated, the list of assets would be too long. Just on one small block, on San Nicolás Street, between Zanja and Dragones, one could see more commercial activity than what is observed today in the whole neighborhood. It goes without saying that the scene on that stretch of San Nicolás is heartbreaking to see.

In 1960, Alfonso Chiong, president of the Chinese Colony and editor of one of its newspapers (The Man-Set-Ya-Po), was informed by the regime that he would have to resign his post. Upon refusing to do so, he escaped to Miami to avoid being sent to jail. According to the newspaper Avance Criollo*, when Chiong arrived at the Miami airport he carried, as his only capital, five dollars in his pocket. Mario Chiu, secretary of the Colony, had less luck – when he refused to resign, he was thrown into the dungeons of La Cabaña prison.

The tragedy was already in progress. It was unstoppable and quite possibly defining. Soon afterwards the flourishing Chinatown turned to ruin, while the entire poor neighborhood found itself as lost, vulnerable and frightened as had its ancestors when, a century before, they arrived on our shores.

*Avance Criollo newspaper; Friday, November 18, 1960.

Translated by Alicia Barrequé Ellison