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CANF's Francisco 'Pepe' Hernández talks to CubaNews
CubaNews / November 2008

By Larry Luxner

Regardless of who wins the White House on Nov. 4, Francisco “Pepe” Hernández insists that Washington’s policy toward Cuba must change.

Since 1991, Hernández has been president of the Cuban American National Foundation, a Miami-based exile group that has between 20,000 and 25,000 members and operates on a $1.5 million annual budget.

In an interview Oct. 6 with CubaNews, the retired economist and businessman said it’s time to “do away with all these absurd restrictions of the Bush administration” concerning Cuban-American travel and remittances.

“The most important thing we Cubans in exile can do is become agents of change inside Cuba,” he said. “Especially after the devastation of two hurricanes has put the Castro government in a situation where they cannot respond to the needs of the people, someone else must fill that vacuum, and nobody besides the Cuban exile community can do it.

“Therefore, it’s extremely important that we convince the U.S. government this is the time to help [dissident] movements on the island become self-sufficient and gain some independence from the government.”

It’s obvious from our interview that Hernández believes Sen. Barack Obama — key-note speaker at the group’s annual May 20 dinner — will be that agent of change.

“The CANF has never endorsed any candidate, but we invite all candidates and personalities who might have some influence on U.S. policy towards Cuba. This is why we brought Obama here in May,” he said.

“I think Obama seems to have a very clear purpose. He came to me as an honest man who wanted to help. Most of all, he wanted to understand the issues.”

Hernández, 72, is originally from the Havana suburb of Marianao.

“I was a student at the University of Havana, and my father was in the military,” he told us. “About three months after Fidel took power, my father was called to be a witness in the trial of a colleague. He refused to testify against his friend, and he ended up being sentenced to 30 years in prison after a trial that lasted only two and a half hours.

“That same night, after being sentenced, he was taken out of his cell and executed, along with his friend.”

Hernández fled Cuba for Miami in 1960 but returned the following year as part of the failed Bay of Pigs mission. He was captured and spent two years in prison.

During his imprisonment, Fidel came to the cell where he and 40 others were being held and lectured the inmates about Marxism. The Kennedy administration eventually paid $100,000 for his release.

Given those die-hard anti-Castro credentials, it seems ludicrous for anyone to label the CANF chief “soft on communism.”

Yet that’s exactly what’s happening in South Florida today, he said.

“There are political interests here who refuse to accept the fact they do not represent all of the community,” he said. “They want to maintain control over our image in Washington. I’m talking about the Díaz-Balart brothers. Unfortunately, they say anybody who digresses just a little bit from their position is soft on Castro — and might even be an agent of Castro. It’s a power play they’ve been playing for some time. I personally have been working not only for Joe García and Raúl Martínez — not as president of the foundation but as an individual in this community who feels this has to change."

Martínez, the former mayor of Hialeah, is trying to unseat Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart in Florida’s 21st congressional district, while García, the CANF’s former executive vice-president, is challenging Lincolns younger brother, Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, in the 25th.

Hernández, who lives in Kendall, will vote for Martínez, though as of press time, he had not decided who he’d support for president.

“I’ve been a Republican all my life, and I know Sen. McCain and have met with him over a dozen times, so it’s not easy,” he said.

Like Obama, the two Democratic challengers to the Díaz-Balart brothers say they do not support ending the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. Rather, they want to roll back all restrictions on exile travel to the island, and lift the cap on remittances.

“The change in policy we are advocating is precisely to have more communications with the Cuban people, and untie the hands of Cuban-Americans in the United States in order to help civil society in Cuba,” he said.

To that end, the CANF raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for emergency relief in the wake of hurricanes Gustav and Ike this summer, thanks to a special Treasury Department license. The money was sent via Western Union to around 1,200 families in Cuba. About $130,000 came in donations of $1,000 or more, with the rest consisting of small donations of $40 or less.

Hernández says he has no family left in Cuba, though he’d love to go back someday. For now, such a visit is out of the question since he still faces a 30-year prison sentence the moment he steps onto Cuban soil.

“We are able to interact with some high officials [in the regime],” he said. “I’ve talked to some close relatives of Raúl Castro, and they tell me he’s different from his brother, in the sense that he’s more family-oriented, and that he’s not egocentric like Fidel.”

Hernández said he has never met Raúl. So we asked him what he might say to the new Cuban leader if such a meeting could be arranged.

“I’d tell him, ‘look, it’s time to go. It’s time to let the Cuban people choose their own destiny. And if you don’t do it now, you might not be able to do it later.”

As for his adversaries within the Miami exile community, Hernández told CubaNews he understands their bitterness, because he's lived it himself.

“You certainly cannot forget 50 years of pain and tragedy,” he said. “But if we’re ever really going to overcome this period of our history, we have to look forward, not back.”

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