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Posted March 30, 2004 by publisher in Cuban Americans

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BY OSCAR CORRAL | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Miami Herald

In a Cuban exile community that has often relied on mass protests and radio broadcasts during the past four decades, two competing organizations backed by wealthy businessmen are taking a different approach.

One is the Cuba Study Group, an alliance born of frustration after some of the richest Cuban exiles in the world found themselves powerless in the aftermath of the Elin Gonzlez custody controversy. They are seen as moderates.

The other is Cuba Democracy Advocates, a smaller, newer group formed last year by businessmen Leopoldo Fernandez-Pujals and Gus Machado to lobby Congress to get tougher on Cuba.

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PEACEFUL REFORM: Carlos Saladrigas’ Cuba Study Group believes change in Cuba should occur peacefully and from within the island. Exiles can’t appear like barbarians at the gate waiting to attack,’ he said. CARL JUSTE/HERALD STAFF

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GET-TOUGH POLICY: Gus Machado, co-founded Cuba Democracy Advocates, which wants sanctions on Cuba upheld. People bug you so much about trying to free Cuba that you end up being converted,’ he said. MANNY HERNANDEZ/FOR THE HERALD

While the organizations differ in ideology, their approaches are similar. Both entered the Cuba debate after conducting polls to back up their contentions. Both are funded by wealthy men relatively new to public activism.

And both are skirting the traditional approach of taking their anti-Castro message directly to the people through Spanish radio and television. Instead, they are directing their efforts at people in positions of power who can influence relations between the United States and Cuba.

‘‘It’s a very interesting period where we’re having a different kind of dialogue,’’ said Mauricio Claver-Clarone, the lawyer lobbying Congress full time for Cuba Democracy Advocates. “It’s more directed at the future of Cuba and the Cuban community.’‘

Cuba Democracy Advocates entered the public arena earlier this month when it released a poll showing that Cuban Americans retain hard-line attitudes toward Fidel Castro. The poll, which was criticized by some as having unbalanced questions, also found there was little support for the Varela Project, an effort to gather thousands of signatures on the island to petition the Cuban government to allow basic civil liberties.

CHANGING PERCEPTION

The Cuba Study Group formed three years ago, in the aftermath of Cuban exiles sparring with the federal government over rafter child Elin and being portrayed in much of the national and international media as closed-minded, irrational, monolithic.

Its members set out to change that perception. And in its brief life, the private, all-male group has emerged as one of the most influential and controversial Cuban exile organizations in Miami.

Led by banker Carlos Saladrigas, its dozen-plus members include Eagle Brands Chairman Carlos de la Cruz and lawyer Cesar Alvarez, CEO and president of the Greenberg Traurig law firm in Miami. It is best known for releasing a poll last year that showed Cuban exiles were more moderate in their views—a conclusion other exile groups rejected.

Like Cuba Democracy Advocates, the group is trying to win a debate through persuasion using a businessman’s approach—numbers, facts, figures, analyses.

NEW TREND

‘‘The pattern is new, from [the Cuban American National Foundation] to the study group to this advocacy group,’’ said Florida International University Professor Damian Fernandez. “Cuban businessmen have traditionally been outside of politics. This might be a sign that Cuban-American business elites want to be very much political players.’‘

The Cuba Study Group has met with a long list of VIPs in its effort to broaden the scope of dialogue among exiles and to portray Cuban Americans as open-minded and progressive. Among them: former President Jimmy Carter; former Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel; Cuban dissident Oswaldo Pay, leader of the Varela Project; and former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaeda.

FROM WITHIN

Although group members differ on specifics, they are held together by the beliefs that Cuba must change its current system, and that the process should occur peacefully and from within the island. They support the ideals of the Varela Project.

‘‘Exiles can’t appear like barbarians at the gate waiting to attack,’’ Saladrigas said. “We have always concentrated on urgency but forgotten that there are two other sides of change: a message of reconciliation, and increasing the rewards of change.’‘

Members can join only if they are invited, and must pay a minimum of $18,000 in dues every year, although some invest much more.

Three of the group’s current members, de la Cruz, Alvarez and Jorge Perez, the chairman of The Related Group, were recently included in a Herald list of the 12 most powerful businessmen in Miami-Dade County.

The group’s agenda and moderate stance have made its members a target for some conservative anti-Castro activists.

For example, lawyer Juan O’Naghten, who is Miami Mayor Manny Diaz’s law partner, questions the effectiveness of the U.S. embargo of Cuba, although he says it shouldn’t be lifted unilaterally.

‘‘I believe that had the embargo been lifted somewhere between 1989 and 1991, there’s a good probability that the regime would not have been there today,’’ O’Naghten said in a recent interview.

Cuba Study Group co-founder de la Cruz feels that travel to Cuba could help bring about change and should not be further restricted.

But Saladrigas says he is a supporter of the embargo and of the ban on travel because those policies can be used as bargaining chips for change. But he also says that ‘‘purposeful’’ travel should be expanded.

Stalwarts of the conservative anti-Castro fight say the group lacks credibility.

‘‘I have never before seen the name of Carlos Saladrigas during all these years of La Lucha [the fight for Cuba’s freedom],’’ said Julio Cabarga, president of Cuban Municipalities in Exile. “What tends to be understood clearly is that Carlos Saladrigas has taken a line of appeasement to Fidel Castro’s regime.’‘

Saladrigas rejects any accusation of appeasement.

A post-Castro transition in Cuba will likely occur in one of four ways, Saladrigas said: through a pact in which Cuban government elites negotiate with opposition groups on the island; through internal reform triggered by such efforts as the Varela Project; through revolution; or through the imposition of rule by internal or external forces.

The options of revolution and imposition would likely have high levels of violence and low levels of openness, an option he considers out of the question. Reform and a pact, however, would likely be peaceful.

SIMILAR TO CANF

The Cuba Study Group is ideologically similar to the Cuban American National Foundation, said CANF Executive Director Joe Garcia.

‘‘They certainly don’t win popularity contests,’’ Garcia said of the study group. “These are very influential people. They put their pocketbook where their mouth is. None of them are trying to get elected to anything. But they’ve spent a lot of money trying to position themselves.’‘

De la Cruz explains that because group members are all successful businessmen, they bring a different perspective to the debate. He said neither he nor the group have business interests on the island.

Cuba Democracy Advocates also consists of wealthy exile businessmen with different views, but a similar approach to lobbying.

Co-founder Fernandez-Pujals—who built a pizza empire in Spain and sold it for about $500 million a few years ago after taking it public—said he was approached by Saladrigas but refused to join him.

‘‘All the changes they want are cosmetic,’’ he said.

Saladrigas said he never invited Fernandez-Pujals to join his group.

FIRM ON EMBARGO

Fernandez-Pujals recently formed Cuba Democracy Advocates with car dealer Machado, another wealthy exile. They have partnered with a young lawyer in Washington, D.C., Claver-Clarone, who is lobbying Congress full time to stand firm on the embargo.

Asked why he entered the Cuba debate at such a late stage in his life, Machado compared it to a spiritual conversion.

‘‘It’s like a religion,’’ he said. “People bug you so much about trying to free Cuba that you end up being converted.’‘

Machado and Fernandez-Pujals met on an airplane during a flight from Madrid several years ago. They met Claver-Clarone at a social event last year and decided he would be their man in Washington.

Cuba Democracy Advocates is trying to make sure that trade and travel sanctions on Cuba remain in place.

‘‘The Washington debate is centered on trade, tourism restrictions and commercial sanctions,’’ Claver-Clarone said. “I want to make sure I have the feel of the community on those issues when I approach Congress.’‘

One independent observer, FIU Professor Lisandro Perez, who until recently headed the Cuba Research Institute, said he thought the Cuba Study Group had a strong start but has faded.

‘‘I’m glad they’ve been able to promote discussion, but so far, I don’t think they’ve been able to set a significant agenda here,’’ Perez said.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, said both groups are effective but specifically mentioned Cuba Democracy Advocates as influential.

‘‘They both want a free and independent Cuba, but they go at it in different ways,’’ Ros-Lehtinen said. “[Cuba Democracy Advocates] are influencing public policy. Influencing policymakers is far more important than public relations.’‘

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