Cuban exile and sugar tycoon Alfonso Fanjul has cracked the ice by declaring his openness to reinvesting in Cuba, decades after the Castro regime forced his family to leave and seized their vast holdings. His about-face could be motivated by business concerns, nostalgia, or simply common sense. Regardless, his candid remarks provide an opportunity for other prominent exiles to step up and push U.S. relations with Cuba toward a modern, pragmatic course that would benefit Florida's Cuban-Americans and the state's economy. The vitriolic responses to Fanjul by two Cuban-American members of Congress from Miami are predictable, outdated and out of touch with generational and demographic changes.
Fanjul's comments, made in a rare interview with the Washington Post, reflected a measured and cautious approach behind his change in thinking. Fanjul, whose family owns one of the world's largest sugar empires, said "we have an open mind" to investing in Cuba should the United States end its trade embargo and the two nations normalize economic and political relations. Cuba, he said, would have to create a legal framework to protect private investment. But he stopped short of calling for an end to the Castro regime or its communist form of government as a precondition, leaving a door open for relations to evolve over time once more moderate voices take the lead in the Cuba-American dialogue.
This transformation by one of the oldest and most prominent leaders in the exile community, and his willingness to speak out, marks a dramatic shift in the dynamics of Cuba policy. Up till now, it's been mostly younger Cuban-Americans who have framed the 54-year embargo as a failure and called for improving trade and travel with Cuba. Fanjul's comments could move an older generation of exiles and wealthy industrialists to redirect their considerable clout and resources away from the old guard and a failed policy, and toward politicians and candidates who recognize the Cold War is over.
Normalizing relations offers the best chance for improving Cuba's human rights record and fostering democratic reforms on the island. The over-the-top (if predictable) criticism by hard-line U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart reflects how embargo supporters have little to offer beyond fear-mongering and character attacks. Fanjul may be looking at opportunities in Cuba to position his empire against global competition. He may read the political tea leaves and fear an end to U.S. sugar subsidies or increasing costs to clean up the farmlands polluting the Florida Everglades. Or the 76-year-old may merely want to re-establish a presence in a country where his family began producing sugar in the 19th century. These are all legitimate reasons for breaking down barriers with Cuba. Fanjul's frank remarks should help build more support to pressure Congress to end the embargo and normalize relations with the island in ways that would benefit Florida economically and improve human rights in Cuba.