April 24, 2008: 4:25 AM EDT
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Corporate stakes in Cuba

Is the future brightening for U.S. pre-Castro claims?

By Telis Demos, writer-reporter

(Fortune Magazine) -- After Fidel Castro announced that he was resigning the presidency of Cuba on Feb. 19, shares of OfficeMax rose 12%. The reason? It has a claim worth $2.5 billion dating back to when its property there was seized in the wake of the 1959 revolution. Similar claims made by nearly 6,000 companies are currently valued at $20 billion, and U.S. laws require all claims to be settled before trade can be normalized.

U.S. companies are not looking for a check, however, according to Patrick Borchers, an international-law professor at Creighton University, who studied the issue for USAID: "[They want] assets back or replacement assets or development rights."

While the office-supply chain, OfficeMax (OMX, Fortune 500), no. 288 on the 500 list, was never in business in Cuba, it came to own Cuba's national electric company through a merger with papermaker Boise Cascade. Boise had earlier bought a Florida company with a stake in Cuban Electric.

Other claimants paint a picture of pre-Castro consumer life: Colgate-Palmolive (CL, Fortune 500), maker of the island's most popular toothpaste;Coca-Cola (KO, Fortune 500), whose soda machines were ubiquitous; and GM (GM, Fortune 500), maker of the '50s-vintage cars still being driven around the island. A predecessor of Exxon Mobil (XOM, Fortune 500) owned an oil refinery, and Chiquita Brands (CQB, Fortune 500) bought a firm that owned fruit orchards.

One company that's been particularly interested in updating its claims is Starwood Hotels. In 1998 the global hotel group acquired part of a claim worth $1.4 billion when it bought a piece of the ITT conglomerate, which had owned a radio station in Cuba. Then, in 2005, after a former ITT manager in Cuba contacted the company, Starwood asked the Justice Department to recognize an additional claim of $51 million worth of land near the Havana airport and on the ocean. It was approved in 2006, but don't book your room yet.  To top of page