US-Cuba thaw could bring Staples a windfall
Office Depot, in line for sale to office supply chain, holds claim to seized power company
Staples Inc. knows the business of selling office supplies inside out. But it doesn't have a clue how to keep the lights on in Havana.
Nonetheless, the Framingham chain of office superstores may soon become the unlikely owner of Cuban Electric Co., the latest twist in a strange business saga that stretches over half a century from the Caribbean to Idaho to Boca Raton, Fla.
The power utility, started by a Florida company, lost its assets when it was nationalized by the government of Fidel Castro in 1960. Cuban Electric may merely exist on paper today, but it still holds a compensation claim that could be worth more than $1 billion.
Staples is in line to take possession of the claim through its pending acquisition of rival Office Depot Inc. The fate of Cuban Electric, long an obscure corporate curiosity, and other seized assets has gained more relevance recently as the Obama administration moves to normalize relations with the island nation.
With the relationship between the two countries softening fast — the United States reopened its embassy in Havana on Monday — some legal experts consider resolution of the 5,913 claims for Cuban compensation by American companies and individuals to be an important step in the political process.
The US Foreign Claims Settlement Commission certified the Cuban Electric claim to be worth $267 million — an amount that, technically, has been collecting interest at a rate of 6 percent a year for 55 years and is by far the largest individual claim.
The current value of all claims combined is about $8 billion. But it's unclear how much money, if any, will ever be collected.
"Unless [the Cuban government] buried a whole bunch of gold bars that we don't know about, there isn't money to pay," said Patrick Borchers, a Creighton University law professor who led a study of the claims issue.
Cuban Electric was organized in 1927 and, three decades later, supplied about 90 percent of the country's electricity. It owned a power plant, nearly two dozen generation stations, 230 miles of gas mains, and 6,619 miles of power lines — roughly the driving distance from Boston to San Francisco and back — as well as 425 trucks and Jeeps and other assets by the time it was nationalized in 1960. At the time, it was owned by American & Foreign Power Co.
With the company's assets seized, ownership of Cuban Electric later passed through several hands as a result of mergers and other business deals. In 1967, American & Foreign Power merged with Electric Bond & Share Co.
The company then merged with Boise Cascade, a timber operation in Idaho. Boise Cascade, which morphed into a paper maker and office-supply distribution company, bought OfficeMax Inc. in 2003 and later adopted its name. OfficeMax merged with Boca Raton, Fla.-based Office Depot in 2013. In February, Staples said it would acquire Office Depot for $6.3 billion.
Staples and Office Depot both declined to comment about Cuban Electric and its outstanding claim for compensation.
Though Office Depot holds the largest individual claim, many other big American companies, such as Coca-Cola Co., Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, and General Electric Co., also have compensation rights for assets seized long ago in Cuba.
President Obama called on Congress earlier this year to lift a trade embargo after a five-decade stalemate between the two countries. This month, the State Department said the unsettled claims would be a priority among the issues the Obama administration expects to discuss soon with the Cuban government, but also warned that it would be lengthy process.
It's not clear how that would work. Given Cuba's economic state, the 2007 Creighton study on Cuban claims focused on other ways to compensate companies and individuals for their losses, apart from cash payments. For example, Borchers said, an Office Depot settlement might include exclusive rights to open office-supply stores in major Cuban cities.
"We were trying to think outside the box in how to deal with the claims," Borchers said.
Others don't believe those ideas would work. The kinds of alternative compensation suggested in the Creighton study are unrealistic, said Mauricio Tamargo, who was chairman of the foreign claims settlement commission from 2002 until 2010 and now works as an international law attorney in Washington. Tamargo and his firm represent several clients with Cuban claims.
He said Cuba would need to change its entire political and economic system for US claims holders to safely invest money in businesses without the risk of seizure and with access to reasonable legal protections.
"I believe Cuba has the ability to pay it," Tamargo said. "Even if they don't have the ability to pay it, they certainly can finance it easily. You have to factor into the picture that Cuba will be free of the embargo and free to make money."
So far, the conversation about how to settle the established compensation claims leaves out thousands of families who were Cuban citizens and fled the country to escape Castro's communist regime. Legal experts said the US government has no jurisdiction over claims from citizens of other countries.
Tamargo, whose Cuban-American family lost property to the government, said Cuba might address the issue after the US claims are settled.
"It's creating a lot of excitement," he said.