Alfonso Fanjul has never gotten over leaving Cuba. His family, owner of a large sugar business on the island, left in 1960, when the Communist regime led by Fidel Castro started seizing all properties. The Fanjuls settled in Florida, bought several fields of sugar cane, and started an empire, the company Domino Sugar and its refineries all over the U.S., that lasts to this day. He also became a leading opponent of Castro among Cuban exiles in the U.S.
But in light of recent changes on the island, Fanjul has started to think seriously about bringing his businesses back home. The entrepreneur has visited Cuba several times in the last months, and started quietly to talk to Cuban authorities.
“I would love to go back to Cuba, if there is a way to do so,” he said.
This change in attitude has surprised the Cuban-American community in Florida, which for decades has had a decisive say in U.S. policy toward Cuba. Fanjul’s trips to Cuba put him in the first row of a small group of investors whose economic interests on the island are pushing forward a resolution of more than 50 years of hostility.
Fanjul said his intention in returning to Cuba is to “reunite the Cuban family.” “The [Fanjul] family lived in Cuba for 150 years, and I would like to see it back there,” he said.
The Fanjul family, of Spanish and U.S. origin, established itself in Cuba in the 19th century, and built the sugar empire that was later seized by Castro, which included sugar mills, refineries, distilleries and significant amounts of real estate. Once they relocated to the U.S., Fanjul’s father, Alfonso Fanjul Sr., bought 4,000 acres along with some sugar mills in Louisiana and started over.
Fanjul Jr., who is known as Alfy, became CEO of Fanjul Corp. in the mid-1960s, and his brothers Pepe, Alexander and Andrés joined in the following two decades. As of 2008, the company owned 155,000 acres in Palm Beach County, Fla., where the Fanjuls live.
The Fanjuls are a well-known family in Florida, for both their businesses and their political allegiances. Alfonso Fanjul Sr. was a significant contributor to Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaigns in the 1980s. Alfy Fanjul has kept a lower profile, but he was Bill Clinton’s campaign co-chairman in 1992, and even had a mention in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, when the intern testified that the president received a call from Fanjul during one of their private encounters.
Fanjul still keeps a close relationship with both Bill and Hillary Clinton, and he had meetings with both after his travels to Cuba.
Meanwhile, Pepe Fanjul and his son, Pepe Fanjul Jr. – an executive vice president at Florida Crystals, part of the family empire – are vocal Republicans, covering all bases for the company. Pepe Fanjul Jr. recently hosted a GOP fundraising event in his home, attended by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in one of his first public appearances after the George Washington Bridge scandal broke.
The Fanjul family influence in American politics was made tangible last week, when the House of Representatives passed a bill lowering subsidies for several agricultural products – sugar not included.
Fanjul’s last visits to Cuba took place in April 2012 and February 2013, with a delegation organized by the Brookings Institution. During his stay in Havana, he visited the old family house, today a museum, and met with the foreign minister and agriculture minister.
On the changing politics of Cuba, Fanjul maintains an ambivalent position. He avoids taking a stand on whether the U.S. embargo should end while the Castro regime remains, but he is of the opinion that investment in Cuba cannot happen under current conditions.
“We cannot invest in Cuba just yet. How can we if we don’t have legal authorization to do so?” he said.
Fanjul added that the Cuban government, should it want foreign investment, needs to create a friendlier environment for international companies. “Cuba should warrant the profitability of the investment and the safety of the assets,” he said.
At 76 years of age, Fanjul has, therefore, emerged as a voice for those Cuban exiles who would like to see a restart of U.S. relations with the island. American-born Cubans, particularly the younger generations, are showing different tendencies than their more hardline parents and grandparents.
With the early rumblings of the 2016 presidential campaign beginning, politicians who have long defended the embargo may need to revise their position to appeal to the large but changing Cuban population of Florida. Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic frontrunner, has already pronounced herself in favor of an opening for Cuban-U.S. relations – though not for ending all sanctions.
The question is even more delicate for Republicans, particularly Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, considered a top-tier Republican candidate. Rubio has repeatedly criticized President Barack Obama’s relaxation of sanctions, saying they “enable the enrichment of a Cuban regime that routinely violates the basic human rights and dignity of its people.”