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  1. Florida Politics

Anti-Trump and anti-Castro, local Cuban hard-liner leader Ralph Fernandez is isolated

Ralph E. Fernandez, a longtime leader in Tampa’s Cuban dissident community, says President Donald Trump pandered to get the Cuban hard-liner vote and then did not fulfill his promises.
Published Jun. 25, 2017

TAMPA — A framed black-on-white sign in the reception area of Ralph E. Fernandez and Associates in Hyde Park makes a powerful political statement: "If you voted for Donald Trump this firm does not want your business."

In these polarized times, such a business decision may seem absurd, acknowledges Fernandez, a longtime Tampa attorney. But he stands by it.

"Someone said recently they're a lifelong proud Republican and voted for Trump," Fernandez said. "I told them to turn around and leave."

Bottom line aside, it's an even odder stance for Fernandez to take. He has long been the darling of Tampa's Cuban hard-liners, the face of that local community for more than 30 years.

Anti-Trump, anti-Castro, Fernandez — who fled the communist nation in 1961 at the age of 8 — now finds himself without a side in the Cuba debate.

"Here is where I pit myself against friend and foe alike," he said. "This is the defining moment of my life because I know the consequences."

Hard-liners, most of them Republican, are now touting Trump's new Cuba policy, which they hope will punish the communist government and bring about increased freedoms, fulfilling the president's campaign promise.

But Fernandez calls Trump's stance bluster, thinks the president views Cuba only as a political opportunity and even compared him to Fidel Castro.

"At least Castro was articulate," Fernandez said with a straight face.

Throughout his voting life, Fernandez has been a Democrat resigned to disagreeing with the party on its sometimes liberal stance on Cuba. Refusing to be a one-issue voter, he even supported Hillary Clinton knowing she would further open up relations with Cuba, which he opposes.

"I am Cuban, but I am an American first," Fernandez said.

Still, he's never allowed party politics to divide him from the Republican anti-Castro community. But he can't ignore Trump's transgressions either, he said.

It's been reported that Trump as a businessman was interested in investing in Cuba's state-run hotel industry, Fernandez said. "How can I overlook that?"

Throughout the election, Trump signaled a willingness to befriend Russia.

"Those people destroyed our nation," he said. "Cuba would not have brought the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust were it not for the Soviets."

And then there is how Castro solidified power, in part by discrediting Cuba's once free media, Fernandez said. Trump seems to be using the same tactic, he said.

"The Cubans who flock to meet President Trump, their legacy will be that they lost two democracies in two nations," Fernandez said.

Anyone who takes umbrage with that statement, he said, can look to his resume as a leader in the Cuban dissident movement.

His many anti-Castro clients include Brothers to the Rescue, the Miami organization that assisted raft refugees from Cuba and had a plane shot down in 1996 by the Cuban government.

When Cuba's opposition leaders come to Tampa, Fernandez hosts them.

While he said he can't detail his role in intelligence operations against Cuba, he showed an FBI letter thanking him for this work as proof of his exploits.

"There has been no one more outspoken on the issue of Cuba than Ralph," said Victor DiMaio, president of the Tampa Tiger Bay Club who is personally in favor of relations with Cuba. "He has been the spokesperson of the exile community."

On Fernandez's wall is a photo of himself with friend Felix Rodriguez, a Bay of Pigs and CIA veteran who led the team that captured Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

And hanging nearby is a service plaque presented by Casa de Cuba, a Tampa organization made up primarily of former Cuban political prisoners.

Rafael Pizano, a spokesman for Casa de Cuba and son of a former prisoner, hopes the organization's relationship with Fernandez continues.

"Trump, as far out there as he may appear, is the only one that has stepped up to the task on the Cuba regime," Pizano said. "In turn, support was given by Cubans and others in Florida, hence winning him the state."

Fernandez remains steadfast that Trump pandered during the election to get the hard-liner vote and then stopped way short of fulfilling his pledge.

All Trump did, Fernandez said, was forbid Americans from staying in military-run hotels and from traveling to Cuba as individuals, policies he believes will be impossible to completely enforce.

"He promised to do away with everything Obama did," Fernandez said. "They voted for him on that issue alone and he didn't do it. . . . We still have flights, cruises and a Cuban flag disgracing Washington."

Now he even sees worth in Obama's trip to Cuba that he once criticized.

It sent a powerful message, he said: Democracy is so great that it enabled a black man to rise to the leader of a nation once known for bigotry.

"I am developing. I am morphing," Fernandez said, except on one issue — his hatred for the "Castro regime."

"I will never go back to Cuba if there is a Castro sequela," he said. "I don't even want my ashes dumped into the gulf. The currents may take them there."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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