Among Cuban-American Business Leaders, Divided Views On Way Forward
by CARMEN SESIN
MIAMI, Florida -- In December, a group of 10 Cuban-American business
leaders, including some Republicans, traveled to Cuba, to see for
themselves if anything had changed since the December 2014 historic
announcement that the U.S. and Cuba would restore diplomatic ties. The
group returned to the U.S. so convinced closer ties to the communist
island would help everyday Cubans that they published a full-page ad in
the Miami Herald titled "An Open Letter to Our Fellow Cuban-Americans,"
urging others to join their cause.
This letter was reminiscent of another letter published in the
Washington Post in February 2015. But in this case, the letter held a
very different view: "The New Cuba Policy: Breakthrough or Bailout?"
criticized Obama's overtures to the island.
Both letters signed by prominent Cuban-Americans demonstrate how divided
the Cuban exile community is on the issue. Though both groups want the
same end result -- a free, democratic Cuba -- both disagree on which is
the best path to take. Here are four well-known, successful
Cuban-Americans and their takes on the issue.
Manny Medina, a tech pioneer who sold the company Terremark to Verizon
for $1.4 billion and the owner of the private equity firm Medina Capital
was one of the businessmen who went on the three-day trip to Havana. He
returned thinking, "the way to effectuate change is to continue what
we're doing," he told NBC News.
He wants to see entrepreneurs in Cuba have more freedom to hire people
directly. Currently, workers must be hired through a state controlled
agency, which retain a portion of the profits. Overall, he would like to
see less state control. "This will ultimately make change come about
more quickly, in my mind," Medina said, warning the change won't be
Medina, who was born in the city of Matanzas in Cuba and fled the island
when he was 13 years old, had visited his home country once before at
the end of 1993. He said he had reached a time in his life where he had
gained a certain amount of success and wanted to "find his roots." But
in 1993, Cuba was in the midst of the "special period" when Soviet
subsidies dried up, leading to extreme poverty and deprivation. Medina
said the trip was one of "extreme highs and extreme lows." The longtime
supporter of the U.S. embargo against Cuba left the island convinced the
embargo needed to be lifted.
Feeling there was nothing he could do to influence Cubans, Medina never
went back until last month. He had heard from people that things were
beginning to change on the island and he wanted to see for himself. He
met with tech entrepreneurs during his trip and said he was very
impressed with their entrepreneurial spirit.
It's important to support those who are opening businesses in Cuba so
they can move forward, according to Medina
He said he, nor the others on the trip have any vested interests on the
island. "I have no interest in doing business in Cuba. What I'm doing is
completely from a personal interest," he said.
On the same December trip was Joe Arriola -- a self made millionaire and
politician who is Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Jackson Health
System, a nonprofit, major provider of health services in South Florida
and the teaching facility for the University of Miami's medical school.
"Right now there are 500,000 Cubans who don't depend on the government
for work. When we get 2 million who no longer need the government, they
will create change," Arriola said.
Like Medina, Arriola was born in Cuba and came to the U.S. when he was
13 years old. He never returned to his homeland until September 2013. He
said the embargo and disengagement with Cuba had began to bother him so
he visited the island with his wife to see what the situation was like.
He said it was during this trip he realized "there was enormous hunger
for change in Cuba."
He said he was bothered by his own ignorance, and that of others, who
support the U.S. embargo.
Arriola feels the embargo needs to be lifted and the Cuban Adjustment
Act (CAC) amended. The CAC of 1996 allows Cubans to apply for residency
one year after being paroled. This policy has become controversial in
recent years as Cubans have arrived more for economic reasons than as
By the same token, the communist government needs to become more
receptive to small Cuban business owners by loosening restrictions and
making it easier for people to become entrepreneurs. In the meantime,
continuing to engage with Cuba is important, said Arriola.
He also wants to see the Cuban government pay more respect to human
rights. "That's a must," he said.
Arriola is critical of those who support the embargo. He said, "you
could be a hardliner, but you have to have a plan … That's what you do
in business. What is their solution? What are they brining to the table?"
One of those involved with the Washington Post letter from 2015, Nestor
Carbonell is a retired former VP of Pepsico who was with the company for
40 years. Carbonell, who has authored several books, says Obama's Cuba
policy was poorly negotiated and it primarily benefits the Castro regime.
"We are breathing new life into the repressive system at a time when the
Castro regime needs resources, funds, and in particular, financing,"
Carbonell said via phone from Connecticut.
Carbonell was born in Cuba and fled the island when he was 24 years old.
The closest he has been to returning was during the 1961 botched
invasion at the Bay of Pigs, which he took part in. The boat he was
traveling on was part of a second wave that was supposed to provide
support when it was cancelled while very near the shores of Cuba.
After one year of rapprochement, Carbonell feels the situation is worse
for Cubans, pointing out that repression against activists has
intensified. The Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National
Reconciliation, an independent group based in Havana, reported earlier
this month that political repression in Cuba increased in a sustained
manner throughout 2015.
According to Carbonell, the recent spike in Cuban migrants is an
indication that the situation has worsened. More than 43,000 Cubans
entered the U.S. in fiscal year 2015, which is the largest amount in 20
years. The migrants are escaping poverty but many are reportedly
concerned that the establishment of relations between the two countries
could put an end to their privileged immigration treatment.
Carbonell argues the self-employed Cubans are not true owners of their
"They are mere licenses of the state, which subjects them to arbitrary
regulations and exorbitant taxes, and bars them from incorporating,
mortgaging, or transferring their mostly in-home struggling
enterprises," he said. According to Carbonell, many Cubans have returned
their licenses and opted for the black market.
Carbonell says the U.S. government needs to use the embargo as leverage
to advance substantial democratic and political reforms on the island.
Alberto Mestre, a former president of General Mills in Venezuela, also
signed the Washington Post letter, saying the timing of the Obama-Castro
deal was "horrendous." The U.S. is providing money to the Cuban regime
through tourism just as Venezuela's economic crisis has created a cash
shortage for the government, he explained.
"What have the Castro brothers given us? Very little. What has the US
given them?" Mestre asked.
He thinks if the U.S would have waited a little longer, "Cuba would have
been obliged to change."
Mestre, whose surname is well-known in the Cuban exile community, was
born in Cuba and comes from an entrepreneurial family, whose enterprises
included car dealerships and a pharmaceutical company. But the family
was best known for being media trailblazers. Mestre's father and uncle
bought CMQ Radio in 1944 and launched what became a major television
network in Cuba, CMQ TV, in the early 1950s.
The Mestre family was wary of Fidel Castro, especially when he began
naming communists as ministers. Mestre, who is a Yale graduate, was home
for spring break in March of 1960 when all of his family's assets were
confiscated. "My parents couldn't write a check," he said.
Mestre fled with his mother and sister to Miami. His father stayed
behind and spoke to the nation that night, alerting the public of the
rode Cuba was heading towards. Mestre still has a copy of his father's
Though Mestre's wife and sister have returned to Cuba on more than one
occasion, he has refused. As an outspoken person, he is afraid of
getting into trouble in a country that still does not allow free speech.
And like many Cubans of his generation, he prefers to remember the Cuba
he left behind.
He feels the U.S. was not tough enough during the negotiations and has
paved the way for Cuba's next president to remain in power for decades,
like has happened in China and Vietnam. Raúl Castro, who is 84 years
old, has said he will step down in 2018.
Mestre wants the Obama administration to be more demanding in
negotiations with Castro's government, and press them on issues like
releasing political prisoners and holding free elections.
"You cannot have a prosperous system in a communist government. Obama
knows that," Mestre said.
The group of four businessmen want to see Cuba become a democracy but
their diverse views on how to get there reflect those of the greater
Since Obama and Castro stunned the world announcing diplomatic relations
would be reestablished there has been somewhat of a shift in attitude
among Cuban-Americans. Traveling to Cuba and lifting the embargo -two
topics that were once taboo among Cuban-Americans- are now more openly
Carbonell and Mestre, who would be considered "hard-liners" by many, are
not calling for a reversal of Obama's Cuba policy, like Republican
Presidential candidate Marco Rubio, who has said he would absolutely
roll it back. The two former businessmen are calling for something less
dramatic, which is to use the embargo as leverage to gain more
concessions from the Cuban government. This is perhaps another
indication that times have changed.
But some topics in the exile community remain delicate. The idea of
establishing a Cuban consulate in Miami has stirred emotions. A recent
county resolution urges the Obama administration to refrain from
establishing a Cuban consulate because its presence "could inflame
passions and create security risks." Miami's mayor, Thomas Regalado,
recently said he would sue in federal court if the State Department
grants Cuba a license to establish a consulate in his city. Miami is
home to the largest amount of Cubans outside the island.
An opinion poll released in mid December by Bendixen & Amandi
International indicates that for the first time, a majority of Cuban
Americans around the country support ending the embargo. But it's only a
slight majority, with 53 percent in favor and a margin of error of plus
or minus 4.9. This demonstrates how polarized the exile community remains.
"I totally understand both sides. We all want the same thing: a totally
free Cuba. But how do we make that change in a quick efficient way?"
Source: Among Cuban-American Business Leaders, Divided Views On Way
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