Among the Cuban-American elite, a shift as some push for more engagement with communist island

The Associated Press

FILE- In this In this Dec. 11, 2013 file photo, developer and art collector Jorge Perez, poses for a photograph in his office at the Related Group, in Miami. Perez is one of Florida’s powerful Cuban-American business leaders. He wants to soften the U.S. government’s longtime economic embargo against Cuba’s communist government. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

Associated Press SHARE

By LAURA WIDES-MUNOZ, Associated Press

MIAMI (AP) — When Miami's new art museum opened in December, namesake Jorge Perez spoke easily about a once-taboo topic among Cuban-American powerbrokers: his desire to increase artistic exchanges with those on the communist island.

Then, this week, billionaire sugar baron Alfonso Fanjul — whose family's business was seized by Fidel Castro in 1959 — spoke publicly for the first time about investing back in Cuba.

Both men are among a growing number of powerful South Florida Cuban-American business, civic and political leaders breaking the long-held public line on U.S. relations with Cuba and the Castro government. For all the talk of changing attitudes among second-generation Cuban-Americans and newer Cuban arrivals, older powerbrokers have remained the guardians of the U.S government's five-decade economic and travel embargo against Cuba and have for years used their political influence to block any major changes.

"If you set a policy in place to seek a certain set of objectives. After a while, if those objectives are not achieved, you either changed your policies or you change your objectives, "said businessman and former Ambassador to Belgium, Paul Cejas, who also left Cuba shortly after the revolution. "Diplomacy is a tool of policy. It's a tool of engagement. It's used with even the most bitter of our enemies,"

Fanjul's comments were a bombshell among the elite Cuban exiles in South Florida, even though he did not advocate an end to the decades old U.S. Embargo. In an interview with The Washington Post, the CEO of Fanjul Corp., who has long opposed the Cuban government, spoke of his recent trips to the island and his interest in bringing the family's vast sugar holdings back there. He wouldn't say whether that would be contingent on the deaths of President Raul Castro and brother Fidel Castro or on the end of the island nation's communist system. Fanjul declined to be interviewed by The Associated Press.

For his part, Perez, an avowed capitalist and a major force behind Miami's revitalization, is unapologetic about his desire to see Cuban art in the Perez Art Museum Miami. Perez acknowledged that some artists may have ties to the Castro government but said the exchanges do more good than a unilateral policy against the island.

"Just like I am really anti-communist, I am also really anti-imperialist," he said.

On Friday, former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running for the office again, said Bill Mahrer's HBO show the he doesn't think the embargo has worked and agreed with Mahrer that Cuban Americans need to stand up to the Cuban regime.

Current Gov. Rick Scott said Crist's statements insulting.

He said: "Our Cuban community needs to be stood up for...The importance of maintaining the embargo is that it stands for the Cuban people's right to be free."

Pepe Hernandez is head of the Cuban American National Foundation, once the leading exile lobby against dialogue with those on the island. In recent years it has encouraged more exchanges, creating something of a rift in the community, but the group is now expanding and will soon open new offices in the heart of Little Havana.

"We are finally bridging the generation gap — a gap that all exile communities have," Hernandez said.

Despite some support for Fanjul after his Post interview, the response from several Cuban exile political leaders was swift and harsh: "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," said South Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, whose family also fled the revolution.

Fellow GOP representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen posted on Twitter: "Talked about #Fanjul's pathetic idea of investing in the #Castro regime while #Cubans suffer."