Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Cuba: here comes Miami ready or not! … by gimleteye

Sugar in Florida Warehouse
Consider it done: the floodgates to Cuba are opening. Given they have been clamped shut for half a century, there is a lag time between turning the screws and actuating the gates. Put it this way: the lubrication is done.

I'll explain. On Monday, the conservative Capitol Hill Cubans blog hoisted a warning as the Washington Post published, "Sugar Tycoon Eyes Sweet-Deal With Castro". Pay attention when Big Sugar surfaces. Cafecito is not the currency of the realm: sugar is.  Half of American health care costs are tied to the ill effects of sucrose in its various forms. Every dollar leads, one way or another, to the largesse of the American taxpayer who subsidizes some of the wealthiest farmers in the world: Big Sugar in Florida.

In June 2012 EOM noted the first visit of Alfie Fanjul in Havana. Alfie is one half of Florida Crystals, the billion dollar brand that dominates anything related to land use, sugar, and agricultural subsidies and pollution control in the Florida legislature, Congress, and the White House.

I was on my first and only visit to Cuba. Alfie Fanjul had been there only a few weeks before. It was more than a curiosity to learn that wealthy Cuban Americans were publicly venturing into the breach, risking the antagonism of the right wing message machine in Miami.

That message machine -- the right-wing, vitriolic anti-Castro, Spanish language AM radio in Miami -- had been used to great effect to enforce political orthodoxy in Florida's most politically influential county, Miami-Dade. Instructions came from the top down, and at the top: money from Big Sugar. By 2012, already, the booming shrink wrapped luggage and long lines of passengers en route from Miami to Havana defied the stigma of the embargo. In other words, a brisk business had already started beneath the rants. Notwithstanding the old hard liners banging their war drums, the gold rush had started.

As a student of sugar politics in Florida and Washington, the 2012 appearance of at least one Fanjul brother -- Alfie -- in Havana meant political cards were being played in advance of a public rapprochement.

Political observers who dismiss the recent Fanjul statements to the Washington Post are missing the point. The Post offers Alfie Fanjul's version of himself: teary-eyed, standing before the family mansion in Havana. Maybe there was a tear or two: but if there ever was the model of a cold, calculating billionaire in Florida, it would be the Fanjuls.

It is clear from this week's Washington Post report, that if the flood gates aren't open, the gears and wheels and levers have been actuated.

Capitol Hill Cubans allude to what we often note: that the Fanjuls' wealth grew from the largesse of American taxpayers and through the sheer political skill involved in maintaining the subsidies that have earned hundreds of millions of dollars. Moreoveral, I would add, a billionaire fortune built on immigrant farm labor, pollution, and turning the Everglades, the Florida legislature, and Congress into their own VIP rooms. That's not, however, the direction Capitol Hill Cubans want to explore.

"Monopolists understand each other", they note. In this, they are correct. In fact, conservative Cuban leaders tolerated the Fanjul monopolists extraordinarily well so long as the action was shared. One of the first business lines of Jorge Mas Canosa, founder of the right wing Cuban American National Foundation, was to broker farm equipment to the sugar barons.

The current leader of the foundation, Pepe Hernandez, told the Washington Post, "Having known Alfy for 40 years, I think we can trust him to do the right thing."

Now, the Capitol Hill Cubans spy the fault line breaking at the possible campaign of Hillary Clinton, where the Democrat side of the Fanjul clan, Alfie's, resides. But that's not it at all.

The issue prying the remaining hard liners in Miami from the Fanjuls is that the Fanjuls will not wait while billions in business opportunities are being hammered out between the Cuban government and wealthy South Americans and Europeans. It's not ideology that kept the Fanjuls from Cuba, it's the fear of losing money now that there is money to be made.

Leaving the brutalities of the Castro regime to the side, the question is not when will the cruelties come to a close, but …
when will the money spigot open? It is open, now. The sign is not yet above the model unit, beckoning buyers, but insiders have already walked through before the general public ever gets wind of the latest deal.

For an aging and dying generation of Cuban Americans, the hope was always for a swift execution of justice in Havana. A revolution where Miami would lead the charge. Instead, the ferocity of anti-Castro hatreds succeeded in mobilizing voting blocks in South Florida, ensuring a conservative GOP majority in the state legislature and a Congress that marched to the same syncopated downbeat as the upbeat in Havana. A lot of money was made in Miami by Cuban Americans controlling the levers of politics, of growth and development of suburbs and condo canyons, while the Castros held on in Havana.

Today, the Castro brothers are fading faster than the conservative Cuban American lock on Miami politics. But Miami's Cuban American elite is more focused on privatization of government services, airport contracts and charter schools. The Fanjuls, on the other hand, with their "30,000 foot view" do understand that history is moving.

So what the Fanjuls do, matters. The Washington Post story is a little like the wisp of smoke emerging from the Vatican when the cardinals have made their decision on the next Pope.

Put another way: there is money and then there is real money. The very rich, like the sugar barons, are -- as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in another context -- "not like you and me." The Fanjuls have excelled at manipulating governments in service of sugar profits in the United States. In the Everglades, they deploy the best black hats that money to delay Everglades restoration while tens of billions of taxpayer dollars are spent in work-arounds of lands in sugar production that need to be returned to fix the Everglades. Hurdles are just ways to make money. When hurdles are self-defeating of profits -- the way opposition to Castro in Miami is, today -- the hurdles have to fall. It's just business.

Here is what Capitol Hill Cubans will not write. For so many of the Miami Cuban American elite, the signal of the Fanjuls volubly turning to Cuba is a shift as great as the state department declaring the cessation of hostilities and the return of the embassy to Havana.

What the Capitol Hill Cubans can't ask and can't answer, how big is the piece of the pie going to be for Miami Cuban American businessmen? That's always been the question they wanted to know. (I learned this in the 1990's, leading the battle against the conversion of a military base in South Florida bordering two national parks into a privatized commercial airport for the benefit of powerful Cuban American businessmen. They said it was for a "reliever airport" to Miami International. No, it was for a private and exclusive cargo airport to control the resupply of Cuba once the regime changed.)

For decades, Miami Cubans claimed to want the whole of Cuba, for "freedom and democracy", knowing that they probably have to settle for less. But how much less? As the years ground on, with Mas Canosa gone and Fidel enfeebled, business interests from other parts of the world have gained traction. The port work, the infrastructure, the city center: it is all being planned now. The shovels are turning in Havana, and right now the shovels do not belong to Miami businessmen.

The challenge to Cuban Americans in Miami has transformed from an ill, aging dictator to hatreds turned into the theoretical analogs of a fleet of 1955 Chevy sedans, held together with the same tenacity and, yes, ingenuity as the real cars soon to be replaced on the streets of Havana with Toyotas the way they have in Burma. Or Myanmar.

The Fanjuls want their piece of the action. It couldn't be more clear with the Washington Post story and the instant reaction from the Capitol Hill Cubans. The game in Havana is, on. Let the scrambling of lesser mortals, begin.

Sugar Tycoon Eyes Sweet-Deal With Castro
Posted: 03 Feb 2014 05:43 AM PST

For decades, Alfy Fanjul has enjoyed the support of the Cuban-American community -- not to mention the generosity of American taxpayers.

This support and generosity has allowed him to amass a great fortune.

While amassing this fortune, Alfy pretended to be a great supporter of Cuban freedom.

Now, despite the continued brutality of Cuba's dictatorship, Fanjul wants to invest part of this amassed fortune in the Castro brothers' business monopolies.

According to The Washington Post, Fanjul has been traveling to Cuba, seducing Castro regime officials, in pursuit of business opportunities with the island's repressive dictatorship.

Of course, this is music to the ears of the Castros, who see Alfy as someone who can channel their interests to 2016 presidential contender Hillary Clinton.

Sadly, Fanjul knows well that the Cuban people -- his brethren -- are strictly prohibited from engaging in foreign trade and investment. This "privilege" is strictly reserved for Fidel and Raul Castro's monopolies.

But monopolists understand each other.

Fanjul also knows well that repression in Cuba is at record levels; that courageous female activists are subjected to weekly beatings and abuses; that democracy leaders are being mysteriously killed; and that hunger strikers are sacrificing their lives for freedom.

But the rights and dignity of the Cuban people seem to no longer bother him.

Fanjul is now willing to put his business interests ahead of their democratic aspirations. The only remaining obstacles for him are a technicality, namely U.S. sanctions, and profit margins.

To wit, in one of his trips to Cuba with The Brookings Institution, they canceled a scheduled meeting with a renowned democracy leader in order not to offend the Castro regime.

(For the last two-years, Brookings has been pursuing "CELAC-style" engagement with Castro.)

Fanjul is joined in this greedy endeavor by two other Cuban-American businessmen, Carlos Saladrigas and Paul Cejas.

Their track-records aren't comforting. These are the same businessmen that, in private negotiations with former President Bill Clinton in 1994, devised the infamous "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy that still afflicts freedom-seeking Cubans.

(As an aside: Why is it rightfully insulting to refer to Hispanic immigrants as "wet-backs," but outrageously accepted to call Cuban refugees "wet-foots"?)

These were also the same businessmen who in 2000 were "negotiating" a solution to the Elian Gonzalez saga with then-Attorney General Janet Reno. Actually, Saladrigas was literally being distracted (at best) on the phone by Reno as federal agents stormed into the Little Havana home of Elian's family.

And now, they are the enlightened "leaders" who are negotiating with the Castro dictatorship -- for their own self-gain.

Fortunately, this trio is the exception and not the rule.

Last year, as rumors of their immoral dealings with Castros swirled in the community, over a dozen Fortune 500 Cuban-American corporate leaders released a public letter rejecting such actions as a betrayal of the Cuban people's aspirations for freedom.

If Alfy wants to continue his business dealings with the Castro regime -- that's for him to reconcile with his conscience.

But American taxpayers should not fund such immoral aspirations.

Sugar tycoon Alfonso Fanjul now open to investing in Cuba under ‘right circumstances’

By Peter Wallsten, Manuel Roig-Franzia and Tom Hamburger, Published: February 2

Alfonso Fanjul fled Cuba as a young man, leaving behind his family’s mansions and vast sugar-cane fields as they were being wrested away by the communist Castro regime.

In exile in the United States, he built an even larger sugar empire, amassing one of North America’s great fortunes and befriending members of Congress and presidents who benefited from his largesse. The sting of his family’s forced departure from Cuba led him to become one of the principal funders of the U.S. anti-Castro movement.

Now, contrary to what almost anyone could have imagined, the 76-year-old Fanjul has begun to reassess old grievances and tentatively eye Cuba as a place for him and other U.S. businessmen to expand their enterprises. Quietly, without fanfare, Fanjul has started visiting the island of his birth and having conversations with top Cuban officials.

“If there is some way the family flag could be taken back to Cuba, then I am happy to do that,” Fanjul said in a rare interview, publicly discussing his recent visits to the island for the first time.

Fanjul’s about-face is a startling development for the exile network that has held a grip on the politics of U.S.-Cuba relations for decades and has played an outsize role in presidential campaigns. His trips place him at the vanguard of a group of ultra-wealthy U.S. investors with roots on the island whose economic interests and political clout are pushing the two countries toward a thaw in their half-century standoff.

Fanjul, in the interview, said repeatedly that his primary motivation in visiting Cuba has been a desire to “reunite the Cuban family,” referring broadly to the Cuban diaspora and those who remain on the island. Business considerations could be explored only if there are political and diplomatic advances, he said.

“The [Fanjul] family was in Cuba for 150 years, and, yes, at the end of the day, I’d like to see our family back in Cuba, where we started. . . . But it has to be under the right circumstances,” said Fanjul, who is best known by his nickname, “Alfy.” “One day we hope that the United States and Cuba would find a way so the whole Cuban community could be able to live and work together.”

Fanjul, who lives in Palm Beach, Fla., and whose family holdings include Domino Sugar and refineries across the United States, Latin America and Europe, has managed to maintain a remarkably low profile for a politically connected tycoon. His access to the highest levels of power was evident during the Monica Lewinsky scandal of the 1990s, when the special prosecutor’s report noted that President Bill Clinton received a call from Fanjul during a private Oval Office moment with the intern.

Last week, the Fanjul family’s influence over policymakers was on display when the U.S. House passed a farm bill that would cut subsidies to many agricultural products while leaving unscathed the controversial, taxpayer-backed program that protects sugar profits.

Fanjul visited Cuba in April 2012 and again in February 2013 as part of a delegation licensed through the Brookings Institution, the Washington think tank that has produced recent papers criticizing U.S. policy and calling on the Obama administration to further loosen sanctions. In Havana, he lingered with tears in his eyes at his family’s colonial-era manse, now a museum, with its elegant columns, lush inner courtyard, sparkling chandeliers and grand staircase.

He was so taken by the nostalgia and excitement of returning to the familiar streets of his youth, a travel companion recalled, that Fanjul enthusiastically chatted up random people of all ages as he walked around. He also met with Cuba’s foreign minister and toured state-run farms and a sugar mill with Cuban agricultural officials.

Unlike most other Cuban Americans who travel to the island, Fanjul has direct access to some of America’s most important policymakers. After returning from his first trip, Fanjul met with his good friend, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, to express his changing views on Cuba. In November, Fanjul once again discussed his evolving mind-set with Clinton and her husband at a Clinton Foundation fundraiser in the Miami home of Cuban American businessman Paul Cejas, a former U.S. ambassador to Belgium.

Many embargo supporters say U.S. policy should change only when certain conditions are met, such as regime change or political reforms. Fanjul, however, said he prefers not to answer the question of whether he would require the fall of the Castro government or an end to communism before doing business in Cuba — saying that he respects existing U.S. law.
“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.”

The logistical, political and legal complexities involved in any potential expansion of U.S.-based businesses onto Cuban soil are staggering. Fanjul’s willingness to hold meetings with the Castro government puts him on a potential collision course with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a Cuban American whose campaigns have been supported by Fanjul but who is an unwavering advocate for the embargo and has the power to thwart any attempts to lift it.

Trickier still would be the impact on presidential politics, with Florida’s Cuban American electorate still a significant factor in the battle for that state’s crucial electoral college votes.

Already, there have been signs that younger Cuban Americans, particularly those born in the United States, are moving away from the hard-line views of their parents and grandparents. Now, as Fanjul’s recent gestures show, even some of the most entrenched exiles are evolving, and politicians accustomed to embracing the Cuba trade embargo in their pursuit of Florida’s large Cuban American electorate will have to calibrate the risks and rewards of evolving along with them.

Hillary Clinton, the putative Democratic front-runner for president in 2016, spoke out in favor of the Obama administration’s actions relaxing restrictions on family travel and cash flow to the island. Yet she, like many politicians in both parties, has repeatedly expressed support for continued sanctions. She is close with several key players, besides Fanjul, who have stated an openness to more engagement with Cuba.

Fanjul, a longtime supporter of Bill Clinton’s campaigns and causes, would probably be a major donor, as well as a close adviser on Cuba-related matters, to Hillary Clinton should she run in 2016. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), a longtime Clinton confidant, traveled to Cuba for a trade mission in recent years and held discussions with high-ranking government officials there. And Cejas, whom Bill Clinton appointed as ambassador to Belgium, has expressed doubts about the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

“I can tell you one thing that became very clear to me: The embargo is really an embargo against America ourselves. Because Americans cannot do business with Cuba, where there are incredible opportunities for growth,” said Cejas, who traveled to Cuba with Fanjul.

The issue could prove thornier for Republicans, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a Cuban American widely seen as a possible 2016 presidential candidate. A staunch supporter of sanctions who blasted President Obama’s loosening of some restrictions as an “enrichment of a Cuban regime that routinely violates the basic human rights and dignity of its people,” Rubio has cited the Fanjul family as a crucial source of campaign funds and political connections.

The family recently hosted another possible GOP presidential candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who headlined a Republican Governors Association reception last month at the Palm Beach home of Fanjul’s nephew, Jose “Pepe” Fanjul Jr., just as a scandal was erupting around Christie.

The Fanjuls’ internal family politics — Alfy backs Democrats and brother Pepe Sr. supports Republicans — reflect both the complexities of the Cuban American experience and perhaps the shrewdness of a family dynasty that knows how to hedge its bets.
Asked about his brother’s trips to Cuba, Pepe, in an e-mailed statement from his office, said he has “always held firm that when the time comes and Cubans are reunited, I will return and help our fellow Cubans rebuild my birthplace.” But, he added: “As you know, I have yet to return.”

In recent years, other prominent Cuban Americans have begun to talk more about opening relations with the island. A number of these exiles see Cuba, communist or not, as a potentially lucrative market that has been closed off to American corporations by decades-old trade barriers they helped erect. Now, some say, the long-standing embargo has failed. They say increased foreign investment in Cuba and greater engagement with people there could spur greater reforms.

But such suggestions have frequently been met with anger by the older generation of Cuban exiles.

Miami businessman Carlos Saladrigas, for instance, said he has been openly branded a traitor in some circles because of his visits to Cuba and his interest in possibly changing U.S. policy.

“I used to be as hard-line as they come,” said Saladrigas, a member of corporate boards for firms such as Duke Energy and Advance Auto Parts. But now he warns that U.S. businesses, without the ability to invest in Cuba, could find themselves sidelined if the island begins to open up. “Do we as Cuban Americans, or do we as Americans, want to be left out of the picture?” he asked. “You can influence Cuba’s future much more by participating in Cuba’s future than by staying away.”

But the shift by Fanjul is far more significant. Not only do he and his family control one of the largest sugar operations in the world, but they also have been major donors to activist groups, such as the Cuban American National Foundation and the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, that have been vocal advocates for trade sanctions.

Rumors of Fanjul’s Cuba visit prompted Mauricio Claver-Carone, a Washington-based board member of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, to confront the sugar magnate during a recent private lunch in West Palm Beach.

Claver-Carone said that he told Fanjul his trips had served only to help the Cuban regime. “I told him they were using him as a tool,” Claver-Carone said, “and that with his stature comes responsibility.”

Fanjul’s trips followed policy shifts by the Cuban American National Foundation, which has lost a number of its more conservative members amid its support for loosening restrictions on travel and money as a way to help Cubans living on the island. “Having known Alfy for 40 years, I think we can trust him to do the right thing,” said Pepe Hernandez, president of the foundation.

Fanjul said repeatedly during multiple interviews that “this is a highly sensitive issue.” He said he needed to “stay at a high altitude” in discussing potential changes in U.S. policies toward Cuba because of the political challenges involved. “What I say can be taken in the wrong context,” he said.
Fanjul’s Brookings-organized trips coincided with calls by President Raúl Castro to rapidly revive Cuba’s moribund sugar industry. Castro now permits foreign companies to participate in sugar production for the first time since the 1959 revolution, and Brazilian firms would be likely candidates to seize new opportunities in Cuba.
Fanjul said his visits were unrelated to Castro’s sugar initiative. He said he has not met with Castro and held no specific discussions with Cuban officials about investments in Cuban sugar. Yet experts say there are many reasons that the Cubans would hope to entice the Fanjul family.
“The Cuban government can revive its sugar industry only with an infusion of foreign investment,” said American University professor Philip Brenner, an expert on the Cuban economy and politics. “The old Cuban mills are enormously inefficient, and the country needs modernization and mechanization to increase productivity.”
Investments by Brazilian sugar companies in Cuba put those companies in the back yard of the Fanjuls’ operations, which dominate the Dominican Republic and Florida and have recently expanded into Mexico. Brenner, who regularly meets with Cuban officials, thinks the Cuban government may now “be willing to consider the possibility of permitting aging sugar barons” from the United States to invest and participate.
Fanjul joined the Brookings board last July and has donated at least $200,000 to the think tank, which has hosted Cuban officials for panel discussions geared toward encouraging greater communication and loosened restrictions on doing business with Cuba. Ted Piccone, Brookings’ acting vice president and foreign policy program director, wrote an open memo to Obama last month urging him to use his executive authority to give direct aid to entrepreneurs on the island and expand travel licenses.
The memo did not mention Fanjul, but it said, “These measures would draw support from key political and business constituencies in the United States (including Florida).”
The Fanjul trips to Cuba reflect a broader, though still subtle, easing of Cold War-era tensions between the United States and the Castro regime. In recent months, U.S. and Cuban officials have engaged in small-scale diplomatic talks on issues such as immigration, drugs and offshore oil drilling. And Obama drew attention to the relationship in December when he shook hands with Castro at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in South Africa.
Obama hinted at a November fundraiser in Miami of more changes ahead when he said U.S. policy toward Cuba should be “creative” and “thoughtful.”
“Keep in mind that when Castro came to power, I was just born,” he said. “So the notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel doesn’t make sense.”
Fanjul’s own travel to the island gave him insights not only about business possibilities, he said, but other possibilities, too.
“Do I have a soft spot in my heart? Yes, that’s my country. My interest is finding a way to unite the Cuban family,” he said. “When you talk with people and hear them, it humanizes. Talking is the first step.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.
© The Washington Post Company

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love the phrase "the right time." Clearly the "right" time is when he can be pretty sure of making (another) fortune. If this meant that big sugar would leave the everglades alone, this would not bother me. But boy-oh-boy the hypocrisy of it. Embargo good - no embargo bad when it might hurt. Interesting days