Rubio ‘surprised and disappointed’ by sugar tycoon’s position on Cuba


Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has received campaign support from the Fanjuls.  (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) offered a gentle criticism Tuesday of sugar tycoon Alfonso Fanjul, who revealed in a Washington Post interview this week that he had quietly traveled to Cuba and had an “open mind” about doing business with the communist regime “under the right circumstances.”

According to an e-mail from Rubio’s spokesman, Alex Conant,  the senator “was surprised and disappointed to read about Alfonso Fanjul’s new position on the Cuban trade embargo. We should not ignore the systemic violations of human rights in Cuba for the sake of opening up new business opportunities.”

The statement from Rubio, who has credited the Fanjul family with raising money and helping him establish political connections during a critical time in his 2010 Senate race, was far more muted than the angry reactions that have come over the past day from two of his fellow Cuban American lawmakers. His softer tone illustrates the awkward position for Rubio, a Cuban American who has staked out a hard-line, pro-sanctions position on Cuba but who relies on the Fanjuls’ campaign donations and fundraising clout.

Fanjul is a Democratic donor and likely ally of Hillary Clinton should she run for president in 2016. But if Rubio runs for the Republican presidential nomination, Fanjul’s brother, Pepe Sr., a donor to GOP causes, would likely play a key fundraising role behalf of his fellow Cuban American.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said Fanjul’s actions were “shameful” and “pathetic,” while Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) called them a “betrayal.”

In the interview with The Post, Fanjul stopped short of declaring all-out opposition to the trade embargo. But he looked forward to a time that the embargo no longer existed and did not make the fall of the Castro regime a condition for him to do business there. The sugar magnate, who left Cuba as a young man and became a key funder of anti-Castro causes, said his primary goal was to “unite the Cuban family.” He said he was open to investing in Cuba if U.S. law were to change and if he and other investors could be guaranteed a reasonable rate of return.

Fanjul said he traveled to Cuba twice – in April 2012 and February 2013 – and had high-level meetings with Cuban government officials. He toured an old sugar mill that had been built, he said, by Russians under the Castro regime. And he associated himself with recent reports by the Brookings Institution, which organized the trips, calling for a dramatic loosening of sanctions. Fanjul sits on the Brookings board and has donated at least $200,000 to the think tank in recent years.

His visits to Cuba, combined with his openness to doing business there, was enough to set off a political bomb of sorts in Cuban American politics.

Here is Rubio’s full statement:

“Senator Rubio was surprised and disappointed to read about Alfonso Fanjul’s new position on the Cuban trade embargo. We should not ignore the systemic violations of human rights in Cuba for the sake of opening up new business opportunities.

The story confirms why Senator Rubio so strongly believes we must keep the trade embargo in place.  American businesses creating joint ventures with the Castro Regime would provide further financial and material support to the Cuban dictatorship that denies basic freedoms, violates human rights, and remains engaged in hostile actions toward the United States and its allies. And it would convert these businesses into allies of the Castro regime for the sake of protecting their investments and profits.

Senator Rubio strongly believes prematurely lifting the trade embargo would remove any leverage the United States has to promote democracy in Cuba.”

Read about Ros-Lehtinen’s statement here.

And here is the statement, issued late last night, from Diaz-Balart:

"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 in their struggle for freedom.

Some might be blind to the Castro regime's brutality and ruthless oppression, but Alfonso Fanjul's betrayal is compounded because he knows better. He knows very well that any investments made with the Castro regime will not help the Ladies in White, Unión Patriótica de Cuba, the Orlando Zapata Tamayo National Civic Resistance and Civil Disobedience Front, or other pro-democracy groups, but rather, will go straight to the pockets of the Cuban people’s jailers and continue to prop them up.

Alfonso should cry less for his lost mansion, and more for the imprisoned artists and musicians, oppressed independent journalists, or for the women that are beaten every Sunday for simply wanting to celebrate Mass.”

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Aaron Blake · February 4, 2014