Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Impoverished widow in Cuba begs U.S. to free her money

Mon August 13, 2007
Impoverished widow in Cuba begs U.S. to free her money

HAVANA, Cuba (Reuters) -- A 107-year-old Canadian widow living in Cuba
is asking U.S. President George W. Bush to free her money so that she
can live her remaining days with dignity.

"The only thing I want it for is medicines and my doctor. I don't even
want to buy candy out of it," said Mary McCarthy.

"They said they couldn't give it to me because I live in Cuba. That's
the only money that I have left. It is in Boston, but I live in Cuba,
that's the great terrible, terrible thing," she said during a recent
visit to her home.

The small fortune she inherited when she was widowed in 1951 has been
frozen in a Boston, Massachusetts, bank since the United States placed
Cuba under sanctions after Fidel Castro's leftist revolution in 1959.

The Cuban government confiscated her properties and her husband's
leather factory, assets valued at $4 million, and she was left only with
"Villa Mary," a dilapidated mansion in need of repairs where she lives
in virtual poverty.

That's because she lived in Cuba and did not leave with most of her
wealthy Cuban neighbors who fled to Miami when Castro nationalized
businesses and steered the Caribbean nation toward Soviet communism.

Since January this year the U.S. government has let her withdraw a $96 a
month allowance from her U.S. bank after Canadian diplomats interceded
on her behalf.

Now wheelchair-bound, McCarthy lives in the same mansion she and her
millionaire husband moved into 62 years ago in the once-posh Country
Club area of Havana.

Peacocks still strut the one-acre garden under royal palm trees, but the
lawn is overgrown and the house filled with Napoleon III furniture,
chandeliers and a Steinway grand piano is falling apart.

Despite her advanced age and fragile physical condition, she still
dresses up for visitors in a satin dress, silk blouse and chiffon scarf,
red lipstick coloring her wrinkled face. Her pearl necklace and
earrings, though, are plastic.

Her real jewelry is there in the Boston bank, too; she would also like
to have her family's "trinkets" released.

Framed congratulations from Pope John Paul, Queen Elizabeth and former
Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien on her 100th birthday hang on
walls in need of a coat of paint.

Pictures on a sitting room table include Castro in his trademark green
military fatigues greeting a lively McCarthy during an embassy reception
for Chretien when he visited in 1997.

McCarthy, who was born in St. John's, Newfoundland in 1900, met
Spanish-born businessman Pedro Gomez Cueto at the opera in Boston. He
swept the 24-year-old music student off her feet and down to Havana, a
city booming on the wealth of sugar barons and a playground for the rich.

Gomez Cueto made his fortune manufacturing boots for soldiers at his
Havana heel factory during World War II. As a member of Cuba's high
society, McCarthy co-founded the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra, played
golf at the Country Club, funded charities and danced at lavish parties
at the Havana Yacht Club that she can barely remember today.

After Castro and his guerrillas took power in 1959, the Canadian widow
visited her wealthy friends in their Miami exile. She found them in
temporary lodgings waiting to return to Havana as soon as the United
States ousted Castro.

McCarthy decided to go home and wait it out. Four decades later,
Castro's government is still in power, though the ailing Cuban leader
has not appeared in public for a whole year, and Mary McCarthy is as
cash-strapped as Cuba's state-run economy.

"I stayed in Cuba because my husband was dead and I inherited the
property," said McCarthy, who has no family that she knows of left in
Canada. "Besides, I like Cubans. They are the best people in the world."

Last year Stan Keyes, the Canadian consul general in Boston at the time,
wrote to the U.S. Treasury office that enforces sanctions against Cuba,
to request the transfer of her funds to Canada.

"She is an unfortunate, albeit unintentional, victim of political
circumstances," Keyes wrote. "She relies on charity. She deserves to
live the rest of her days in comfort."

Responding to U.S. officials who suggested McCarthy leave Cuba and
return to Canada, Keyes said she was no longer able to withstand a harsh
Canadian winter.

McCarthy has been confined to a wheelchair since she fell and broke her
hip in 2002.

A devout Catholic, she prays after tea every day. Her godson Elio Garcia
wheels her to a darkened lobby where, under the gaze of a marble statue
of Salome, she prays with a rosary to Cuba's spiritual patron, the
Virgin of Charity.

McCarthy figures in the last edition of the Anglo-American directory of
Cuba in 1960. Her address is still the same.


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