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MIAMI (Reuters) - A multibillion-dollar battle over property confiscated after Cuba's 1959 revolution edged closer this week with the retirement of veteran leader Fidel Castro, a leading lawyer for Cuban exiles believes.
"Historically, it's a milestone," Miami lawyer Nicolas Gutierrez told Reuters.
He is handling nearly 400 claims against Cuba's government, mostly on behalf of exiles who left their homeland in a hurry and had their property seized after Castro's guerrillas entered Havana and took power nearly half a century ago.
Castro's retirement this week raises hopes that the property claims will finally be settled, Gutierrez said in an interview on Wednesday. "We may still be years away but we're closer to the end."
He says U.S. citizens and companies lost roughly $8 billion at today's prices in confiscated property in Cuba and have 5,911 claims pending with the U.S. government's Foreign Claims Settlement Commission.
The nationalized property of Cubans far exceeds that, however, and Gutierrez said it could total as much as $200 billion. "You're talking about some serious, serious value."
Around a quarter of his clients hired him after Castro temporarily handed over power to his brother, Raul Castro, when he underwent intestinal surgery in July 2006. And Gutierrez expects his business to boom when there are finally clear signs of a democratic opening in Cuba.
"I'm basically a corporate, government relations lawyer, but I'm doing more and more of this and some day it will explode and become a huge practice," Gutierrez said.
He said only about six new clients had trickled into his office since Tuesday, when the 81-year-old Castro announced that he would not return as head of state, indicating that few expect rapid changes under his likely successor, Raul Castro.
The threat of exiles returning to Cuba to claim confiscated property has long helped bolster support for Castro's government among Cubans who worry they could be forced out of homes they have occupied for decades.
But Gutierrez said many exiles who have remade their lives in Miami, or elsewhere, were looking for compensation rather than repossession, and that solutions could be reached after communism ends, the same way they were in Eastern Europe.
"No one can be evicted from homes even if they're not theirs. The right of possession has to be respected," he said.
Gutierrez, the 43-year-old son of Cuban exiles, was born in Costa Rica. He has never been in his parent's homeland but says his family had about 100,000 acres of land there, including two sugar mills based near Cienfuegos in the country's southeast, before it was expropriated by the revolutionary government.
"The communists have kept meticulous records of the properties they stole from the Cuban people," he said.
"You would think that they would have destroyed everything, burned everything, just to sort of erase the past ... They're almost sort of giving us more legal rope to hang them with eventually."
Editing by Michael Christie and Kieran Murray