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

  • Story Highlights
  • A Canadian-born widow lives in extreme, genteel poverty in Castro's Cuba
  • Her financial assets are frozen in a Boston, Massachusetts, bank
  • She has been allowed to withdraw a $96 a month allowance from her U.S. bank
  • Canadian diplomats interceded on behalf of the wheelchair bound 107-year-old
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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. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Copyright 2007 Reuters. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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