Congresswoman lashes out at tycoon for opening door to Cuba

Alfonso Fanjul
Alfonso Fanjul

News that sugar tycoon and longtime anti-Castro exile leader Alfonso Fanjul has quietly traveled to Cuba and is open to doing business there prompted an angry response Monday from a Cuban American member of Congress, who called Fanjul’s actions “pathetic” and “shameful.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) released her statement in the wake of a Washington Post report quoting Fanjul as expressing an “open mind" to investing in Cuba “under the right circumstances.”

Her reaction shows how emotional and polarized the politics of U.S.-Cuba relations remain -- so much so that a lawmaker feels the need to lash out at one of the giants of American industry (and one whose family gives millions in donations to both parties). The Fanjuls own one of the world’s largest sugar empires -- growing, processing and refining cane sugar across the United States, Latin America and Europe.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of Fanjul and his brother Jose “Pepe” Fanjul to both parties. Alfonso, known as “Alfy,” is a major Democratic donor and fundraiser and is close with both Clintons. Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), look to the family for support, as well. Gov. Chris Christie headlined a reception in the midst of his scandal last month at the home of Alfy’s nephew, Pepe Jr.

Now, the family patriarch is taking a risky stand in his community. And all the 2016 White House hopefuls from both parties will have to decide whether they are ready to evolve with him on an issue that, as Ros-Lehtinen’s statement suggests, still drives votes and conversation in one of Florida’s most important electorates. Rubio, for instance, the son of Cuban immigrants, has attacked those who want to engage more with Castro for “enabling” a corrupt regime to get richer. But now the very policies he espouses are being rejected by at least one prominent member of a family that Rubio credits with raising crucial resources for his 2010 Senate bid.

The attack from Ros-Lehtinen was surprisingly personal. The chairwoman of the subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa called Fanjul’s actions “shameful for a Cuban-American who fled the Castro regime.”

“At a time when the democracy activists on the island are facing even harsher reprisals from the brutal Cuban regime, it's pathetic that a Cuban-American tycoon feels inspired to trample on the backs of those activists in order to give the communist thugs more money with which to repress,” she said.

Fanjul traveled to the island with two groups organized by the Brookings Institution.

In a rare interview, he told The Post that his primary goal was to find ways to unite the “Cuban family,” referring broadly to those who live on the island and people of Cuban heritage who live now in Florida and elsewhere. He said he has not spoken with Cuban officials directly about investing in their country but discussed the conditions under which he might consider it at some point.

“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 said.

“Now, would we consider an investment at some later date?” continued Fanjul, a permanent U.S. resident who maintains Spanish citizenship. “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. We have an open mind.”

He said the Cuban government — which has business deals with companies from countries such as Canada and Spain — would have to change its economic structure to make it easier and safer for outside companies to make money.

“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,” he said. “I personally would look at that in the same framework as any investor would.”

Many observers said Fanjul’s willingness to engage with Cuba reflected a changing landscape in the Cuban American community, where many are taking a more pragmatic view that the only way to democratize the island is to foster more contact with the people who live there.

The president of the formerly hard-line Cuban American National Foundation, Pepe Hernandez, told The Post that he trusted Fanjul to do the right thing and supported his efforts.

The question is whether Fanjul’s willingness to speak out -- along with similar moves by other Cuban exile investors -- will push  the conversation to a new place. If even the Fanjul family, which directly suffered losses to the Castro regime, is willing to look anew at Cuba, then lawmakers and candidates might feel more comfortable -- or even compelled -- to evolve, as well.

Here is Ros-Lehtinen’s full statement:

"At a time when the democracy activists on the island are facing even harsher reprisals from the brutal Cuban regime, it's pathetic that a Cuban-American tycoon feels inspired to trample on the backs of those activists in order to give the communist thugs more money with which to repress. The only little old thing that is standing in Alfy's way of realizing these sleazy business deals with the devil is U.S. law. He doesn't talk about the arbitrary arrests of pro-freedom leaders in Cuba or the continual beatings endured by the peaceful Damas de Blanco. Oh no, for Alfy, the only hindrance to turning a profit off the suffering of the Cuban people is pesky U.S. laws and he is working with groups to undo those laws. It is sickening to read that he brings up the separation of the Cuban family when he is doing all he can to exacerbate that problem. Shame on him. And while Alfy was massaging his future profit deals with Castro's Foreign Minister, there were over one thousand political arrests last month.

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