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Al Fox: One man's lonely crusade to change U.S. policy
CubaNews / March 2003

By Larry Luxner

Albert J. Fox Jr. isn’t particularly Cuban, even though his elderly mother Luisa, the daughter of a Spanish opera singer, was born in Havana, and Fox grew up in Ybor City, an immigrant enclave of Tampa, Fla.

In fact, the Washington lobbyist never gave Cuba much thought until just a few years ago, when he decided to take a trip there for the first time in his life.

“As my mother’s 80th birthday approached, I thought it would be nice to visit the country of her birth,” Fox told CubaNews last month. “I started inquiring how I could go to Cuba, and was told I couldn’t, because Fidel Castro was a bad guy. Then OFAC [Office of Foreign Assets Control] turned me down for a license. So I called CANF [the Cuban American National Foundation], and you can imagine what they told me.”

Fox promptly decided that as a veteran lobbyist, he would start an organization dedicated to overturning the embargo.

ALLIANCE INCLUDES FORMER CONGRESSMEN

In November 1998, he established the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy, a non-profit organization backed by a 15-member board of directors. Fox has since added the word “Foundation” to the group’s name in order to comply with IRS regulations allowing the tax-exempt group to accept contributions.

Many of the alliance’s directors are former members of Congress, including Beryl F. Anthony, Jack W. Buechner, Rod Chandler, Dennis DeConcini and Bruce A. Morrison Other names on Fox’s board are J. Paul McNamara, president of Washington’s Sequoia Bank; attorney John Ray of Manatt Phelps & Phillips LLP, and Alexander B. Trowbridge, a former U.S. secretary of commerce.

“Our objective is to remove the embargo and establish full trade relations with Cuba,” said Fox. “My original idea when I formed this group was to get 15 American companies to put in $100,000 each for 12 months, and we could eliminate the embargo.”

Things didn’t happen that way, though Fox has bankrolled the alliance in the last four years with $250,000 of his own funds. The group, which leases office space from Manatt Phelps, has also received money from Tyson Foods, Federal Express, Trailer Bridge Inc. and half a dozen other Fortune 500 firms.

“I don’t believe you can bribe a member of Congress,” said Fox. “However, Congress is motivated in two ways only: by votes and by money. The people on my side of the fence have no votes and no money.”

FROM POOL SHARK TO WASHINGTON LOBBYIST

Fox is hardly new to this game. In 1965, thanks to family connections, the 20-year-old college dropout who spent his time in the pool halls of Ybor City landed a Washington internship with Florida Sen. George Smathers.

He also enrolled at the University of Mary-land, earning degrees in both political science and psychology.

In time, the young man was hired by then-Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield, advising lawmakers on pending bills, and eventually became legislative director for former Florida Rep. Bill Chappell.

Years later, Fox — who also worked for Allied Chemical — finally established his own consulting firm, Riley & Fox. Today, his full-time job is running Access Management, a Maryland-based company that outsources accounting and information systems.

But Cuba is clearly his passion. Since inau-gurating the alliance five years ago, Fox, 58, has traveled to the island 32 times — taking along CEOs of major U.S. companies as well as politicians like Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Tampa Mayor Dick Greco.

All of this is part of Fox’s lonely crusade to end the embargo.

In his view, embargo opponents “don’t have the political muscle, because we don’t work together. The other side, the CANF, knows how to play the lobbying game. They’ve been substantially weakened [by recent defections] but they’re still more powerful than we are.”

DISSENT AMONG FRIENDS

In fact, from 1959 until the mid-1980s, pretty much the only Americans who really cared about Cuba were exile groups like the CANF.

Then, following the decline of U.S. involvement in Central America, a slew of left-leaning, non-profit groups turned their attention to the island, using foundation grants to hold seminars, issue policy statements, lobby and sponsor fact-finding missions to Havana.

Later, individuals like Fox and Kirby Jones, president of Alamar Associates, entered the scene, using their personal connections with top Cuban officials, including Castro, to open the door for their U.S. business clients.

More recently, the real heavy hitters — powerful organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Farm Bureau Federation — have joined the fray. Thanks to their political muscle, they’ve had success in limited areas, most notably the Trade Reform and Enhancement Export Act of 2000, which allows food sales to Cuba on a cash-only basis.

At least a dozen non-profit organizations, most of them based in Washington, now support some degree of normalization of econo-mic and political relations between the United States and Cuba (see box, page 9).

Yet these organizations don’t have a particularly good track record of working together. In fact, Fox reserves some of his most biting criticism not for adversaries like the CANF but for anti-embargo groups such as the Cuba Policy Foundation that share his objectives.

“I am frustrated that so many of our groups are more concerned with self-promotion than with working together and speaking with one voice to eliminate the embargo,” he said. “The name of this game is winning. That’s what the legislative process is about. It’s not about making philosophical pronouncements or having seminars.”

According to Fox, “when the CPF was esta-blished, their official position was they were not going to work with any group that shared their point of view on lifting the embargo.”

He added: “In any lobby campaign going on in this town, people meet once a week, even once every other day. When do the opponents of sanctions against Cuba gather to discuss strategy on Capitol Hill? I feel a sense of failure that I have not been able to hold regular meetings with those of us who supposedly are working towards the same goal.”

CPF Executive Director Brian Alexander said Fox’s allegations are untruthful.

“We work with all the groups we think are effective on the Cuba issue and we’ve reached out to groups throughout Washington and the United States,” he told us. “Increasingly, there’s cooperation among our organizations. That’s something we haven’t seen in a while, and it’s a welcome development.”

Alexander also disagrees with Fox’s basic premise that lobbying alone will do the trick.

“Clearly the action is in Congress, but unless you’re able to deliver that message to the rest of the country and then get them to deliver that message back to Washington, you’re not gonna change the policy,” he said.

Wayne Smith, chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana during the Carter administration and now a leading embargo opponent, appears to agree with Alexander.

“If you’re lobbying Congress but there’s no groundswell of support, it won’t work,” said Smith, now a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, which is funded largely by grant money. “Lawmakers have to perceive that public opinion is in favor of moving ahead with Cuba. You help bring that about with conferences, trips, talks and so forth.”

Alamar’s Kirby Jones, who also heads the U.S.-Cuba Trade Assocation, declined to comment for this story except to say that “Al Fox has done very positive work” for the cause of improving ties between the two nations.

RUFFLING FEATHERS IN TAMPA

Fox views his biggest accomplishment so far as having taken Tampa’s Dick Greco to Cuba, putting the popular mayor directly at odds with Miami’s political establishment.

“Dick Greco is a Democrat. But he was on Jeb Bush’s finance committee and made it quite clear to Fidel Castro that he endorsed Jeb Bush for governor of Florida and George W. Bush for president,” Fox told CubaNews. "The day Tampa completely breaks ranks with Miami [over the Cuba issue], it’s over.”

The lobbyist says that unlike Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC), co-author of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, Florida’s two U.S. senators — Bob Graham and Bill Nelson — will eventually change their views on Cuba. “Bob Graham can’t possibly in his heart believe this nonsense [about Cuba],” he said. “Helms did.”

Time is running out, however, for immediate action in Congress on the travel ban and the embargo in general, Fox warned.

“If we cannot accomplish something substantial in the next six months, then we’re talking about another two or three years,” he said, explaining that the 2004 presidential elections will soon get in the way of debate on Cuba. “When it comes to Cuba, there’s always a very legitimate, logical reason not to act.”

But Fox figures that if he could influence his 83-year-old mother to finally change her mind about the embargo, then members of Congress will also see the light someday.

“I took my mother to meet Fidel,” Fox said proudly. “All her friends were anti-Castro, and so was she. But now after visiting Cuba, she’s convinced that U.S. policy is absurd.”

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