HAVANA, march 26th Mojitos, strawberry daiquiris and hand towels awaited the well-heeled guests that strolled into the Saratoga Hotel. The lobby felt like the airy foyer of a Havana country clubhouse of old — right down to its members:
Almost all hailed from Miami.
Hugs and backslaps, handshakes and introductions. Half the men sported blue blazers and khakis; the other unwrapped matching guayaberas in picture-perfect baby blues and pale pinks.
If you panned across the room at any given moment this week, you had to blink twice to make sure you weren’t in a hotel in Brickell. There was developer and tech entrepreneur Manny Medina. And healthcare magnate Mike Fernandez. And condo king Jorge Pérez. Attorneys Pedro Freyre and Ralph Patino. Big Sugar’s Andres Fanjul.
Businessman Carlos Saladrigas. Former U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Paul Cejas helping himself to brunch. Former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez hopping on an elevator with businessmen Enrique Sosa and Ariel Pereda.
“This is literally a 45-minute flight away,” said Joe Arriola, the Miami-Dade County Public Health Trust chairman, who was also at the Saratoga. He pointed to communist regimes in faraway China and Vietnam. In Cuba, he maintained, “Things are going to change so much faster.”
Miami’s Cuban-American business elite spent spring break in Havana, chasing President Barack Obama. Some took part in official White House events. Others lingered in the periphery, witnessing history — and trying to figure out how to prod it along with the power of their wallets.
Don’t call it a vacation.
“I’m going to work. I’m not going there to play,” Fernandez, who gave some of the others a lift to Havana aboard his private plane, said the day he departed Miami. “I don’t drink, and I’m a lousy dancer, so I’m not going there to play.”
A few years ago, many of the businessmen — several of them lifelong Republicans — would have refused to set foot in Havana, much less consider investing there. Now they’re amongthe most prominent proponents of the Democratic president’s push for renewed U.S. cooperation with Raúl Castro’s regime. Several met with Obama at the White House the week before the president’s trip and offered ideas for what he might say in Havana. He took up many of them, the Cuban Americans said with satisfaction Tuesday after watching Obama deliver his speech in person.
They’ve got big-name company. Also traveling to Cuba for an entrepreneurship event Obama held at an Old Havana brewery Monday were a slew of CEOs from national companies such as the Marriott and Starwood hotel chains, PayPal, Xerox and Air BnB.
The bigwigs were hardly alone. Regular Miamians made their way to Havana over the past few days too — because of Obama, but also to watch the Tampa Bay Rays play the Cuban national team, or catch the Rolling Stones, or spend Easter with Havana friends and family.
“He decided to go the same week I was going to go,” said 51-year-old Carlos Delgado, a tutor who left Cuba in 1985. He planned his trip months ago and was delighted he’d coincided with the president — and the Stones: “Such an important week!”
The biggest days on Cuba’s political calendar in recent memory would have felt somehow incomplete without the robust presence of exiles who wrestled for decades with the pain of seeing their old home slip into totalitarianism. Yet seeing part of the Cuban-American old guard there — the one still oft-derided on Cuban state-run television — seemed striking.
“Taking these positions 10-15 years ago in Miami was not a popular thing,” said Patrick Hidalgo, 37, who worked in the Obama administration. “I’ve had people scream at me for discussions that now would seem extremely benign.”
Hidalgo confessed to initial “mixed feelings” about Obama’s Cuba trip. But he came around and accepted an invitation to his Havana speech. He stayed with a cousin in Havana — “That’s kind of how me and my family keep our pulse on what’s going on with people in Cuba” — and noted many South Florida acquaintances hoped to make it to the island themselves.
“It’s been shocking,” he said. “Me and my sister joke around that we could open up a Cuba travel agency just from the sheer number of friends that hit us up for advice. They don’t just want to stay in Varadero,” the famous beach, he said. “They want something even more meaningful.”
Average Cubans, particularly more recent arrivals in the U.S., have been traveling back and forth between both countries for years, in some cases spending U.S. government benefitsback on the island. The elite that clung to its refusal to engage for so long is merely playing catch-up.
The difference is their clout.
Most of the Miami businessmen are on a first-name basis with Cuban foreign ministry officials and leaders of the U.S. embassy. They get invited to private meetings. They see historic Old Havana as an untapped opportunity — for Cubans or foreigners — to build fancy shops and seaside condos. They insist political change — democracy — will follow, roiling hard-liners back in Miami who first want the release of political prisoners and the guarantee of crucial freedoms.
Meantime, the members of the new Cuban-American establishment squeeze in art-gallery tours and jogs along the Malecón seawall. They congregate under one roof at the Saratoga, with its massage treatments, rooftop pool and Freixenet bottles — and its reliable stream of suspected state-security lookouts. They enjoy a breakfast-buffet feast of delicacies most Cubans can only dream of: smoked salmon, prosciutto, dates, figs, four types of soft cheeses.
“To think we can have unlimited food and they’re rationed? Yeah, it bothers me,” Miami Beach Commissioner Ricky Arriola, who made the trip separate from his father, said one morning. “But in the end, by pushing for change, we’re doing the right thing.”