By: Patricia Mazzei
Earlier this month, nearly a year to the day President Barack Obama shocked Cuban Americans with the news that the U.S. would reestablish relations with the Castro regime, a group of Cuban-American business people, almost all from Miami, quietly traveled to the island to see for themselves what, if anything, had changed.
Most of the 10 men — even a couple of otherwise staunch conservatives — returned convinced that stronger ties to the U.S. would help Cubans. They published a full-page advertisement in Sunday’s Miami Herald urging others to join their cause. Its title: “An Open Letter to Our Fellow Cuban-Americans.”
“We saw progress beyond what we could have imagined,” they wrote. “We saw entrepreneurs with a thirst for knowledge and families benefiting from the newfound freedom of enterprise. It is these ‘everyday’ people who are leading the way to an improved life but not without challenges.”
Without calling for an outright end to the U.S. trade embargo, which can only be lifted by Congress, they denounced it as ineffective: “As fellow Cuban-Americans, let us recognize the progress that has been made on both sides of the 90-mile Florida Straits, albeit halting, in the right direction. Just consider what has been accomplished in the last 12 months versus what has been accomplished in the last century.”
“We have arrived at the point in our lives where we have no interest in personal advancement, but only in what would be good for ‘nuestra gente,’” our people, they maintained.
Two Republicans who led the travel group paid for the ad: Carlos Gutierrez, the U.S. commerce secretary under former President George W. Bush, and Mike Fernandez, the Coral Gables healthcare magnate and top financial backer of Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign. Also signing the letter were Miami attorney Ralph Patino; Public Health Trust Chairman Joe Arriola; John McIntire, chairman of the Cuba Emprende Foundation, which supports a business training program run by the Cuban Catholic Church; Miami tech entrepreneur and investor Manny Medina; Ariel Pereda, a businessman who facilitates trade to Cuba and is chairman of the Engage Cuba Council; David Hernandez, chief executive of the Fort Lauderdale-based Liberty Power; Juan Espinosa of The Espinosa Group, a general contractor, and Enrique Sosa.
“It’s so difficult to have a point of view understanding the changes that are going on unless you go to Cuba,” said Gutierrez, who visited the island in August, for the first time since leaving as a child in 1960. He has returned three more times this year, including the trip in early December.
“We didn’t really have a political objective,” Gutierrez added. “What we see is an opening to see Cuban entrepreneurs, to help the Cuban economy in a way that benefits the average Cuban, and we’d like to see how we can help.”
The Cuba policy has been harshly criticized by current and former Cuban-American Republicans in Congress, including former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart.
“Cuban heroes and heroines being beaten arrested every day for supporting freedom need our solidarity and help,” he told the Herald. “To the signers of this ad I would say: If you are unwilling to stand up for those who suffer beatings and imprisonment in Cuba due to their beliefs, you should at least have the decency to remain silent.”
Fernandez, who has also been to Cuba four times this year, said that despite vocal opponents, he was buoyed by warm reception to his September op-ed in the Herald declaring his intent to help rebuild Cuba. He hopes Sunday’s ad might give social and political cover to others who agree, even as repression on the island continues.
“There are many, many Cuban Americans in this community that are concerned about coming out and saying, ‘Let’s give something else a chance,’” Fernandez said. “Nothing else has worked up to now.”