MIAMI – When Miami’s new art museum opened in December, namesake Jorge Perez spoke easily about a once-taboo topic among Cuban-American powerbrokers: his desire to increase artistic exchanges with those on the communist island.
Then, this week, billionaire sugar baron Alfonso Fanjul — whose family’s business was seized by Fidel Castro in 1959 — spoke publicly for the first time about investing back in Cuba.
Both men are among a growing number of powerful South Florida Cuban-American business, civic and political leaders breaking the long-held public line on U.S. relations with Cuba and the Castro government. For all the talk of changing attitudes among second-generation Cuban-Americans and newer Cuban arrivals, older powerbrokers have remained the guardians of the U.S government’s five-decade economic and travel embargo against Cuba and have for years used their political influence to block any major changes.
“If you set a policy in place to seek a certain set of objectives. After a while, if those objectives are not achieved, you either changed your policies or you change your objectives,” said businessman and former Ambassador to Belgium, Paul Cejas, who also left Cuba shortly after the revolution. “Diplomacy is a tool of policy. It’s a tool of engagement. It’s used with even the most bitter of our enemies.”
Fanjul’s comments were a bombshell among the elite Cuban exiles in South Florida, even though he did not advocate an end to the decades old U.S. Embargo. In an interview with The Washington Post, the CEO of Fanjul Corp., who has long opposed the Cuban government, spoke of his recent trips to the island and his interest in bringing the family’s vast sugar holdings back there. He wouldn’t say whether that would be contingent on the deaths of President Raul Castro and brother Fidel Castro or on the end of the island nation’s communist system. Fanjul declined to be interviewed by The Associated Press.
For his part, Perez, an avowed capitalist and a major force behind Miami’s revitalization, is unapologetic about his desire to see Cuban art in the Perez Art Museum Miami. Perez acknowledged that some artists may have ties to the Castro government but said the exchanges do more good than a unilateral policy against the island.
“Just like I am really anti-communist, I am also really anti-imperialist,” he said.
On Friday, former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running for the office again, this time as a Democrat, said on Bill Maher’s HBO show that he doesn’t think the embargo has worked and agreed with Maher that Cuban Americans need to stand up to the Cuban regime.
Current Republican Gov. Rick Scott said Crist’s statements were insulting.
He said: “Our Cuban community needs to be stood up for … the importance of maintaining the embargo is that it stands for the Cuban people’s right to be free.”
Pepe Hernandez is head of the Cuban American National Foundation, once the leading exile lobby against dialogue with those on the island. In recent years it has encouraged more exchanges, creating something of a rift in the community, but the group is now expanding and will soon open new offices in the heart of Little Havana.
“We are finally bridging the generation gap — a gap that all exile communities have,” Hernandez said.
Despite some support for Fanjul after his Post interview, the response from several Cuban exile political leaders was swift and harsh: “I am outraged by reports that a fellow Cuban-American, who has witnessed the atrocities inflicted by the Castro regime, has apparently chosen short-term profit over standing with the Cuban people,” said South Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, whose family also fled the revolution.
Fellow Republican representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen posted on Twitter: “Talked about #Fanjul’s pathetic idea of investing in the #Castro regime while #Cubans suffer.”
But U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, a Democrat and the son of Cuban exiles, said Fanjul was simply voicing the issues many Cuban-Americans wrestle with.
Since the embargo’s imposition in the early 1960s, shortly after Fidel Castro’s communist revolution overthrew a pro-U.S. military dictatorship, the policy has prohibited U.S. companies and citizens from conducting most trade with the island and, with some exceptions, visiting it. Until recently, politicians and business leaders who advocated for the embargo’s elimination, or even loosening, incurred the wrath of the Cuban-American community, which had the money and power to make its views stick.
In 2000, a small bipartisan group of Cuban exile business leaders, including Cejas, began to rethink their position. Their ranks have grown as they’ve pushed for shifts in U.S. policy that, with changes in Havana, now allow hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans to visit the island annually and send money to relatives there. Travel restrictions also have been loosened, making visits easier for Americans not of Cuban descent.
Although Congress is unlikely to eliminate the embargo anytime soon, the Obama administration or its successor could go further and allow Cuba to buy U.S. imports with cash, let non-Cubans invest in businesses on the island, and ease travel even more for non-Cubans, ideas that Fanjul appears to support.
Still, South Florida’s older exile community largely remained united in public, even as privately more powerbrokers began to break with the orthodoxy. Some quietly visited the island, such as during Pope Benedict XVI’s 2012 trip to Cuba. Others became open to business opportunities.
In the Post interview, Fanjul said his primary desire was to reconnect with his roots. But he also seemed to be appealing to the U.S. government. Fanjul is close to former President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, who is considering a White House run in 2016.
“Right now there’s no way for us to consider investing in Cuba. How can you work a deal if you’re not legally allowed to do it?” he told the paper. “If there’s an arrangement within Cuba and the United States, and legally it can be done and there’s a proper framework set up and in place, then we will look at that possibility.”
He also sent a note of caution to communist leaders: “Cuba has to presumably satisfy the requirements that investors need, which are primarily a return on investment and security of the investment, so they feel comfortable with what they’re doing.”
Mauricio Claver-Carone, who serves on the board of the anti-Castro U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, which opposes people-to-people travel, said he stills views Fanjul as an exception and suggested any move by Fanjul to do business with the island would backfire. “Alfy Fanjul needs our community more than the community needs him,” Claver-Carone said.
But the PAC may still need the Fanjuls. In the past five years, the family and top employees have given the PAC more than $40,000.