Exiles join stream of visitors to Cuba

Fanjul trips reflect trend, spark backlash

Silvia Wilhelm of Miami, who left Havana at age 14 in 1961, now leads Americans on culture tours of Cuba. (Courtesy of Silvia Wilhelm, Handout / February 12, 2014)

WASHINGTON — A growing number of aging Cuban exiles are returning to their birthplace, no longer willing to wait for the end of the Castro regime or to outlast the U.S. embargo before seeing their homeland.

Among them is Alfonso Fanjul, a sugar baron from Palm Beach who, at 76, recently revealed that he has been quietly visiting the island of his youth, setting off a backlash from embargo backers.

“It’s rampant, the number of people going back of my generation,” said Silvia Wilhelm, 67, of Miami, who left Cuba in 1961 and now leads cultural tours to the island. “My generation, and Alfy Fanjul’s generation, we left very young. The majority are happy they left, but they don’t want to die without going home.”

But many exiles vow never to set foot in Cuba as long as it remains under the heel of the Castro government.

“It’s pathetic that a Cuban-American tycoon feels inspired to trample on the backs of [democracy] activists in order to give the communist thugs more money with which to repress,” U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican who was born in Cuba, said after Fanjul’s disclosure.

Fellow Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, called Fanjul’s visits a “betrayal” and warned that any investments in Cuba “will go straight to the pockets of the Cuban people’s jailers and continue to prop them up.”

Fanjul’s decision is especially significant because of his political connections, including close ties to former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The wealthy Fanjul family fled Cuba soon after the 1959 revolution and created an even bigger sugar empire in South Florida and the Dominican Republic. In Palm Beach County alone, Fanjul and three brothers own 155,000 acres, two sugar mills, a refinery, a rice mill and a packaging-and-distribution center.

In a rare interview, Fanjul told The Washington Post that he began visiting Cuba in 2012 on trips licensed by the Brookings Institution, a think tank that encourages closer ties to Cuba. He said he mostly wants to “reunite the Cuban family” and that “talking is the first step.”

Fanjul said he would resume business in his homeland only after U.S. law allows it and Cuba transforms its economy to “satisfy the requirements that investors need, which are primarily a return on investment and security of the investment so they feel comfortable with what they’re doing.”

His visits coincide with limited reforms by President Raul Castro to attract foreign investment.

Looser travel rules established by Obama in 2009 allow Cuban-Americans unlimited trips to see family. U.S. officials don’t track the number of American visitors to Cuba, but travel agents and charter airlines estimate that 350,000 Cuban-Americans went there last year.

Other Americans are taking advantage of Obama’s people-to-people program, which allows cultural, educational and religious tours. According to the Cuban government, more than 98,000 visited in 2012, up from 73,500 in 2011.

Prominent recent visitors include U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and former Florida Gov. Bob Graham, who made his first visit to Havana last month to talk about potential dangers of oil exploration off the Cuban coast.

Pop stars Jay-Z and Beyoncé visited Cuban musicians and sampled Havana’s night life while celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary last year, stoking interest in the people-to-people program while sparking criticism from embargo supporters.

To the dismay of hardliners, this stream of visitors apparently has softened attitudes toward Cold War-era policies that exclude tourists from a fascinating destination 90 miles from Key West.

A survey released on Tuesday and commissioned by the Atlantic Council, a group that favors engagement with Cuba, found that 61 percent of a nationwide sample and 67 percent of a Florida sample supported “removing all restrictions on travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens.”

Now many exiles are getting on board.

“I myself was in favor of the embargo for many years and was in favor of limiting travel to Cuba. But after 50 years of a failed policy, you have to reassess, and you cannot be stubborn,” said David Hernandez, 44, of West Palm Beach, who returned to his birthplace last September for the first time in 40 years.

The co-founder and CEO of Liberty Power, an energy retailer, now wants to end the travel ban and embargo. “We’ve seen more and more Cubans — not only the recent arrivals but folks who in many cases lost everything — understand that it’s time to revisit how we view Cuba.”

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