Thursday, February 6, 2014

Alfy's message to Obama

Short of Jorge Mas Canosa arising from the dead and saying, “Never mind,” it’s hard to think of a bigger shift in the Miami political landscape than the news that the Fanjul brothers have traveled to Cuba and would like to invest there.

The Fanjuls are known for doing very well in sugar, a government-dependent, even socialist sector of the U.S. economy.  They are also known for prodigious campaign contributions that support their sugar interests, and for being long-time, stalwart supporters of U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba. 

In all this, they do not seek or need publicity.

When it comes to Cuba, they are of the generation that plans to return only “cuando se vayan aquellos,” i.e. when the Castros have gone.  That generation has put legislation on the books that quite literally prevents the United States from normalizing relations until those two have indeed gone.

The Fanjuls’ 2012 and 2013 trips to Cuba were not a secret.  By all accounts there, their message was simple and consistent: they expressed no interest in recovering property, and a clear interest in helping to revive the sugar sector.

Now Alfy Fanjul has chosen to make this known, in all places, in the pages of the Washington Post.  He does so two months after President Obama said in Miami that “we have to update our policies” toward Cuba, and a month before Cuba is to announce long-awaited norms to attract more foreign investment.

Alfy says that his “interest is finding a way to unite the Cuban family.”  U.S. investments in Cuba are not legal now, and Cuba’s laws are not necessarily attractive enough to draw them.  But, he says, “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.”

It’s as if he is inviting everyone to declare victory – el exilio for the comprehensive U.S. sanctions, Cuba for surviving them and everything else Washington threw its way for 50 years – and then to look at the next task, which is to build a more prosperous Cuba with help from outside.  Practical and magnanimous.

The seismic importance of the Fanjuls’ shift can be measured in the hysterical reactions of Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart.  (Sen. Marco Rubio, thinking presidentially these days, merely expressed “disappointment” through a spokesman.)

I don’t blame them.  For 50 years, these guys have been inside their tent shooting out, and now they’re outside shooting in.  The importance of Cuban American hard-liners in Presidential politics is already diminished by the fact that other Latinos are increasingly numerous and important in the Florida electorate, and by the fact that Obama and Romney split the Cuban-American vote evenly in 2012.  Demography and the actuarial tables are not the hard-liners’ friends.

Now, the last remaining advantage – campaign cash – begins to look like a paper tiger too if even the Fanjuls are hoping that the United States and Cuba can “find a way.”

And closer to the heart, the very idea of el exilio is being drained of meaning first by the massive flow of Cuban Americans and their money, and now by the interest of prominent Cuban American business leaders in participating in the Cuban economy.

In Iran, President Obama is pursuing a high-stakes, high-gain vision that looks beyond the urgent issue of nuclear development and focuses on the strategic aim of rebuilding relations between two great nations.  Bravely, he has set domestic politics aside.

On Cuba, the President eloquently explains how anachronistic our policies are, does little, and seems to be thinking only of small-bore changes. 

Meantime, history and our entire American neighborhood call on the United States to think and act big.

Animo, Alfy.

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