U.S. First Circuit - The FindLaw 1st Circuit Court of Appeals News and Information Blog

Cuba Steals Family's Wealth but Judgment Is Unenforceable

It's a story of family saga fit for movie-making. Two brothers, persecuted by Cuban authorities under threat of extermination, flee to America to begin a new life. Decades later, they successfully obtain a judgment against the communist nation in the amount of $2.8 billion.

But the island country has not paid a single dime of that money. And, with a recent decision on the brothers' attempts to enforce, it looks like options are running out.

Guevara's Regime of Grab and Take

The two Cuban refugee brothers, Alfredo and Gustavo Villoldo, escaped from the communist island nation in 1960 during the peak of Fidel Castro's power. The family was given a choice by the infamous 'Che' Guevara: either the entire family dies, or some members may live in exchange for the father's life and his lands. Weeks later, the family patriarch's body was found due to apparent suicide and the Cuban authorities seized the Villoldo land and bank accounts.

The brother escaped to America and lived to successfully win a judgment against Cuba in a Florida court in 2011. The award number was staggering: $2.79 billion.

Cuba Refuses to Pay Up

Cuba has rebuked the American court's order to pay, so the brothers pursued accounts of Cuban nationals held by transfer agent Computershare in Massachusetts. The argument was that under a 1959 Cuban law, assets held by Cuban nationals not repatriated back into the country would be taken by the Cuban government. A subpoena indicated that Computershare held 383 accounts opened by Cuban Nationals. If the Cuban government would not willingly give, the brothers would take what Cuba's possessed overseas.

Their attempts in America would have to succeed however, because the brothers failed previously in 2014 attempting to attach accounts held in Spain.

Courts Disagree

The theory the brothers proposed did not sway the courts and both the trial and circuit courts refused to order the transfer of funds. First, it concluded that the accounts were not in fact, the property of the Cuban government; as such a finding in an American court would contravene American principles of property ownership and domain. This was, despite the general "act of state" doctrine normally applied, wherein US courts will generally respect the actions of other sovereign nations. Ironically, this one exception which is normally the saving grace of many injured plaintiffs actually damned the brothers in their attempts to satisfy a judgment against Cuba.

As it stands, the brothers have only one avenue left to try: The US Supreme Court. If that happens, we'll be following the case the entire way.

Editor's note, June 23, 2016: This article mistakenly reported that the brothers fled Cuba in 1948. In fact, they fled Cuba for the U.S. in 1960.

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