Some Who Fled Cuba Are Returning to Help
By DAMIEN CAVEMARCH 4, 2014
HAVANA — The business ideas have ranged from a bikini franchise to a
peanut farm, restaurants, and design firms for software and home
interiors. But even more novel than the pitches — in a country where
entrepreneurship used to be illegal — is the financial muscle behind
them: Cuban-Americans whose families lost their previous ventures to
Cuba’s Communist government.
“It’s all about people not losing hope and seeing that starting a
business is a way to improve their lives,” said Eduardo Mestre, 65, a
Wall Street banker who returned to Cuba last year for the first time
since 1960 to see the start-up training he helps finance. “Emotionally,
it’s very hard not to connect with people who have all this ambition in
a place where maintaining hope is very hard to do.”
Many of the first Cubans to leave after Fidel Castro took over are
beginning to come back, reuniting with the island they left in
bitterness and anger, overcoming decades of heated opposition to its
leaders, and partnering with Cubans in direct, new ways.
Some are educating a new crop of Cuban entrepreneurs to take advantage
of the recent limited openings for private enterprise in Cuba.
Conservative Republican exiles in Miami have also helped finance the
renovation of Cuba’s most revered Roman Catholic shrine. Young heirs to
the Bacardi family, which fled Cuba after the revolution, leaving behind
luxurious homes and a rum business that employed 6,000 people, are
sending disaster relief and supporting artists. And Alfonso Fanjul, the
Florida sugar baron, recently acknowledged that he had gone back to Cuba
twice, meeting with Cuban officials and later declaring that he would
consider investing under the “right circumstances.”
It has been a shocking reversal for a community of exiles that has long
represented a pillar of support for the American embargo against Cuba.
And though the activity is legal through humanitarian or other licensed
exceptions to the sanctions, some Cuban-American lawmakers have
responded with outrage. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican
from Miami, called Mr. Fanjul’s trips a betrayal.
“The question is how can we better help the Cuban people free themselves
from this regime that has been there for over half a century,” he said.
“And the best way to do that is to deny funds to the regime in any way
But what has emerged in Miami, New York and elsewhere over the past two
years, as President Raúl Castro has opened the economy, just a crack, is
an alternative approach that emphasizes grass-roots engagement, often
through churches, as a tool for giving Cubans skills and independence
from the state. Among many Cuban-Americans who now describe themselves
as a part of a diaspora, rather than exiles, a new sense of
responsibility — to Cubans on the island, not to the property they lost
or to fighting the Castros — has gathered strength.
“We think engagement, dialogue and interaction — lowering the barriers —
is the best way to develop civil society,” Mr. Mestre said, “but also
some of us who feel some respect for the 11 million people stuck there,
we just really feel that’s the right thing to do.” He added that he
sought a relationship with Cuba, despite the loss of his family’s homes
and businesses, including what was once Cuba’s largest television and
radio network, because “the loss of our property and wealth is kind of
secondary to the feeling about what happened to the country and its people.”
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The expanding exchange of people, ideas and money is a result of policy
changes over the past few years in Washington and Havana that have
opened up travel and giving for Cubans and Cuban-Americans. After
decades of being cut off by politics, the airport here is always crammed
with Cuban-Americans coming to see family and lugging in gifts, just as
it is now more common to see Cuban artists, academics and dissidents in
Florida or New York, often mingling with the established Cuban-American
“The broad trend is Cubans’, regardless of their politics or ideology,
coming here to visit, live and work, and go back and forth,” said Julia
E. Sweig, the director for Latin American studies at the Council on
Foreign Relations. “It’s an organic dynamic in which the elite are
For many families, the transition from keeping Cuba at a distance to
pulling it close has taken time and multigenerational discussion. When
Kevin O’Brien and some of his cousins decided a few years ago to take
charge of the long-dormant Bacardi Family Foundation, they agreed to
focus much of their support on Cuba, returning to a version of an old
family custom: Relatives pool money together and distribute it to a
chosen cause or person.
Not everyone gives; there are about 500 Bacardis now, and disagreements
over the homeland are common, said Mr. O’Brien, the foundation’s
president. But since reactivating the foundation in 2012, the Bacardis
have raised $28,000 for water filters after Hurricane Sandy and financed
efforts to encourage creative expression, with art, photography and music.
Cuban officials seem tolerant, to a point. Eager to improve their weak
economy, they welcome the money but fear its power, said one artist
supported by the foundation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to
avoid reprisals. He added that while Cuba’s leaders had become more
welcoming — no longer calling exiles gusanos, or worms — they were still
distrustful, determined to keep Cuban-American influence from becoming
an immediate challenge to the state.
For now, experts say that seems unlikely. The organized money going to
Cuba, beyond an estimated $2.6 billion in family remittances, mostly
from the United States, remains relatively small. A lot of it is still
funneled into the Catholic Church, one of the few institutions allowed
to play a role in civil society. The Order of Malta provided 800,000
meals for the elderly in Cuba last year with around $250,000 in
donations, mostly from Cuban-Americans in Miami. The Cuban police
nonetheless interrogated some of the old women being fed.
The Cuba Emprende Foundation, a nonprofit on which Mr. Mestre is a board
member, has also struggled to reassure Cuban officials that its founders
— a bipartisan mix of exiles long dedicated to engagement and others who
only recently embraced the idea — are interested only in incubating
small businesses, in line with the government’s stated economic policy.
The organization’s official tax forms filed recently with the I.R.S.
state that it has disbursed about $225,000 so far, none of it from the
United States government.
Board members say that Cuban officials suggest that Cuba Emprende must
be part of a covert Washington plot. A Cuban instructor in Havana, who
spoke anonymously to protect the program, said the pressure had
increased as Cuba Emprende grew; by mid-March, 731 graduates will have
completed the 80-hour course, run through the church in an old seminary
here and at a rectory in Camaguey.
Cuban-American lawmakers who back the embargo also seem displeased with
the increased engagement, even though Cuba Emprende and other groups in
Cuba emphasize that their work does not violate the embargo.
Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the Cuban-American Democrat often
described by administration officials as Washington’s main impediment to
broader changes in Cuba policy, said it was simply ineffective. “I’m not
seeing this engagement produce the results they say it would,” he said,
adding that “the regime hasn’t become more open,” even as Europeans
travel and invest in Cuba, unfettered.
Mr. Mestre contends Mr. Menendez and other embargo supporters in
Congress are counterproductive. “With that attitude,” he said, “you’re
just hurting the people you’re trying to help.”
Increasingly, many Cubans and Cuban-Americans are building their own
ties, reveling in the surprise of a rediscovered connection. “Cubans are
Cubans,” said Niuris Higueras Martínez, 39, one of Cuban Emprende’s
first graduates, in 2012. “We find ways to work together.”
That bond is now evolving alongside, or within, Mr. Castro’s limited
opening to market ideas. Ms. Higueras, a whirlwind who had always
dreamed of opening a restaurant, now owns Atelier, one of Havana’s most
popular eateries. Cuba Emprende played a major role in making it happen.
“Everything in that course was important,” she said, including how to
calculate her books or change her menu for the slow season. She said she
also benefited from the sense of a shared mission with her classmates
and the accountants and other professionals Cuba Emprende relies on for
help in Cuba. “There was just such chemistry,” she said.
Now, in her business and others, there is a demand for more opportunity,
more possibility — but also the usual barriers. Cuban law and the
American embargo prohibit Cuba Emprende from bankrolling its students’
ideas as it would like to. Without enough capital for bigger ventures,
including Ms. Higuera’s dream of a cooking school, some ambitions are
During the dinner rush at Atelier, however, with foreigners and Cubans
enjoying food and service that had disappeared from Havana for decades,
Ms. Higueras was more interested in focusing on how far she had come.
“If you have 15 employees, you have at least 10 families whose troubles
are suddenly resolved,” she said, wiping a few drops of chocolate from
the corner of a plate on its way out of the kitchen. “If you open a
little, you get a lot.”
A version of this article appears in print on March 5, 2014, on page A1
of the New York edition with the headline: Some Who Fled Cuba Are
Returning to Help.
Source: Some Who Fled Cuba Are Returning to Help – NYTimes.com –