CubaNews / January 2008
By Larry Luxner
Miami Beach resident Alvaro Fernández has plenty of aunts and cousins in Cuba, and he sees them as often as he can — which is at least once a year.
But when Fernández hops on a charter flight to Havana, he does so as the publisher of Progreso Weekly,a bilingual online magazine.
“That allows me to go to Cuba legally, as a journalist,” he told us. “Under normal circumstances, I could never visit my aunts and cousins because they’re no longer considered family members.”
Fernández ought to know.
As president of the CubanAmerican Commission for Family Rights (CACFR), he’s dedicated his life to fighting the U.S. embargo against Cuba and — more recently — to overturning what he calls the Bush administration’s “cruel and obscene measures” that define what a family is and limits family visits to once every three years.
“The commission is a diverse group of individuals from many walks of life and many interests with an eclectic view of the Cuban situation,” said Fernández, 55, who was born in Havana and came to Miami as a boy in 1960.
Fernández studied journalism and history at the University of Florida in Gainesville, graduating in 1975. For awhile, he edited the Sun-Reporter,a small newspaper in Miami Beach, and did freelance work for other dailies and weeklies.
In 1981, he ended up working for Raúl Martínez, the newly elected mayor of Hialeah, and remained in that post for six years.
Not satisfied with being behind the scenes, Fernández took a stab at politics, running for state representative in 1986 and Miami-Dade County commissioner in 2000.
“Both times I lost,” he told us. “In between, I did real-estate and other work, but I always seem to come back to politics. I guess that’s what drives me. It’s like a drug.”
Outraged by the new Bush administration clampdown on family travel to Cuba, Fernández established the CACFR in June 2004 along with Silvia Wilhelm, who serves as its executive director. He estimates the group has 200 members — including maybe 15 or 20 people who are “very actively involved” in South Florida politics.
“We got together that summer and came to the conclusion that this disastrous Cuba policy had to be stopped,” he said. “For the life of me, I cannot understand how any American who truly believes in what this country stands for can claim to favor such inhumane laws.”
To drive its point home, CACFR commissioned the filming of a 46-minute documentary, “Those I Left Behind.” Fernández says the bittersweet movie, directed by Lisandro Pérez-Rey, is “very balanced” and shows how both sides have been wrong on this issue.
Yet Fernández sees a silver lining to all this.
“As sad as the 2004 regulations have been, in a way it was a gift from President Bush because it’s a policy that 67% of CubanAmericans don’t agree with,” he told CubaNews. “It’s having an economic impact on Cuban families in Cuba. These laws limit remittances too, so the people being hurt are not government officials but the actual families.”
As a result, CACFR now has an issue it can actually sell to voters.
“The family issue has given us inroads to a community which in the past opposed us, or simply ignored us. Many of those agreed that the politics of family separation goes too far. And those who ignored us — especially those who arrived after the 1990s — no longer do so, because it has affected them directly.”
He added: “As far as a political risk to the Bush administration, the regulations may have been a safe bet in 2004. But under the right conditions, they will come back to bite these guys in the rear end come 2008.”
Fernández obviously has passion; what he clearly lacks is a huge war chest.
“We have maybe $5,000 or $6,000 in the bank,” he says — a pittance compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars being raised by the Cuban-American Democracy Political Action Committee, which is intent on keeping the current U.S. policy on Cuba intact.
“For years, we have looked up to Washington to solve our problems. That was our mistake. We’ve wasted too much time in Washington. and what has that gotten us? In 2006, when both the House and Senate went Democratic, we celebrated. But if you look closely, things have actually gotten a little worse. So before we come back to D.C. and ask people on the Hill to help us, we must learn to help ourselves.”
Fernández added: “We must build a movement toward common goals revolving around South Florida. We don’t all have to agree on everything, but we must agree on what’s best for Miami and our relationship with Cuba.
“We must pinpoint our battlefield and start preparing our troops. I’m making this seem like a war, and in a way, it is. We change Miami and the view on Cuba changes too. And the quickest way to change Miami is to get rid of one, two or all three of our Cuban-American members of Congress.”
Fernández says he’s encouraged by the likelihood that Joe García, former executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, will challenge Mario Díaz-Balart for his congressional seat in 2008.
It appears as if former Hialeah mayor Raúl Martínez will run against Mario’s older brother, Lincoln Díaz-Balart; for the moment, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is running unopposed.
“These three form the bedrock of the obscene politics of hatred,” Fernández said. “When one of these three goes, Cuba policy as we know it will start to unravel. Two of them gone would be better, and all three would be a gift from God.”
García, who now heads the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, hasn’t announced if he’ll run or not. But the potential candidate told CubaNews that if anything can unite Cuban-Americans against the Republicans, it’s the current travel regulations.
“Alvaro and I have disagreed on a lot of things, but I totally agree that family travel is important, particularly now,” he said. “Travel for all Cuban-Americans is essential as a first stop toward a more coherent and meaningful policy by the U.S. government. That’s why it’s the position of the Cuban American National Foundation, Consilio Cubano, the Cuba Study Group and the majority of Cuban exiles.”
Fernández said he’s never met with either Fidel or Raúl Castro, but that as president of the CACFR he wouldn’t rule it out either.
“I’ll talk to whomever will talk to me,” he said. “I am very, very pro-Cuba. I am for what’s best for Cuba and the United States.”
Yet Fernández also declined to criticize the Castro regime directly when asked about recent reports of police beating up dissidents in a Santiago de Cuba church.
“Yes, I agree there are human-rights issues in Cuba, and we need to fix those problems,” he told us. “But at the same time, we have those problems here in the United States, and we need to fix those problems, too.”