Tampa men on opposite sides of the Cuba question to debate in Ybor
By Paul Guzzo | Tribune Staff
Published: October 4, 2015
TAMPA — Al Fox and Ralph Fernandez are strident champions of opposite
positions on the Cuba question, but the two Tampa men might agree on one
thing: When it comes to their personal relationship, the best policy is
Fox, 71, a lobbyist and founder of the Tampa-based Alliance For
Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, supports normalizing relations with
the island nation and lifting the U.S. travel and trade embargo. He has
met with Fidel Castro nine times.
Fernandez, 63, a Tampa criminal defense attorney, has represented and
befriended a number of Cuban dissident leaders, wants to sever all
diplomatic relations again and argues to keep the embargo in place.
“Al and Ralph will never exchange Christmas cards,” quipped Victor
DiMaio, vice president of Tampa’s Tiger Bay Club. “They don’t see
eye-to-eye on the Cuba issue. It’s sometimes best if they are not put in
the same room.”
Still, DiMaio’s nonpartisan political organization will do just that
tonight at Centro Asturiano in Ybor City, sponsoring a debate between
Fox and Fernandez on the current relationship between the U.S. and Cuba.
The debate kicks off at 5:30 p.m. with a cocktail reception before the
fireworks fly when Fox and Fernandez take the stage at 6:30 p.m.
“The issue of Cuba is on a lot of people’s minds right now,” DiMaio
said. “Let’s keep the discussion going. I believe that no two people in
Tampa and possibly the country are as educated and articulate on this
issue as Al and Ralph.”
Fox has been to Cuba more than 100 times and led delegations that have
included former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco; current St. Petersburg Mayor
Rick Kriseman; and retired Marine Lt. Gen. Michael DeLong, former deputy
commander of Tampa-based Central Command.
Fox helped broker the recent coral reef research partnership between
Tampa’s Florida Aquarium and Cuba’s National Aquarium.
And in 2010, Fox introduced U.S. oil and environmental leaders from the
private sector to members of the Cuban government.
This led to successful lobbying of the U.S. government to work with Cuba
on a cleanup and containment protocol.
Fernandez has gained acquittals for more than a dozen exiles whose
attempts to overthrow the Cuban government landed them in U.S. court.
These include Rolando Nieves Machado, who was caught with a boat of
weapons off the coast of Key West bound for Cuba.
Fernandez was handpicked by Brothers to the Rescue, a Miami-based
organization that assisted and rescued raft refugees from the island, in
its attempt to lay blame on Castro for ordering its planes shot down in
Three U.S. citizens and a U.S. resident died in two crashes. Charges
were never brought against Castro.
And in 2011, a federal court qualified Fernandez as an expert witness in
the area of Cuba’s use of foreign intelligence, propaganda and
fabrication of evidence. He provided the Tribune court transcripts to
back this claim.
Despite their differences, Fox and Fernandez maintain the debate will
“We have diametrically opposed positions,” Fernandez said. “I try to
reach a level of compromise in terms of civility with everyone, even
those I disagree with.”
Fox acknowledged with a laugh that “a lot of people may show up to see a
“You’re not going to see that,” he said. “We’ll debate the issues.
The last time Fox and Fernandez debated was 13 years ago, in a different
political climate. Fox at the time represented the minority view that
relations with Cuba should be normalized.
“A majority of the people at that debate were opposed to me,” Fox said.
“I don’t see that being the case again.”
That’s fine with Fernandez, who relishes the underdog role.
“I’m a criminal defense attorney,” he said. “Very few times do I get to
defend someone who everyone likes and wants to help. What matters is
what is right.”
They may not want to admit it, but Fox and Fernandez show similar qualities.
Both are often described as the outspoken leaders of their cause, both
are considered stubborn, and both have received criticism for their work.
Fox has been labeled a traitor and spy by the pro-embargo crowd for his
willingness to meet with Cuba’s government during the decades it was on
the State Department’s list of nations supporting terrorism. Cuba had
that designation removed this year.
Those in favor of normalized relations have used the word terrorist to
describe some of the men Fernandez has defended and supported over the
years, such as Luis Posada Carriles, who remains accused of
orchestrating the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people.
Fernandez boasts that his 2011 testimony as an expert witness on Cuban
foreign intelligence helped Carriles win acquittal in a Texas court on
11 counts of perjury.
The charges stem from statements Carriles made to an immigration judge
about his role in bombings at Havana tourist spots in 1997.
Fernandez and Fox simply shuck off these accusations.
“To call me a traitor or a spy is so bizarre I don’t even get angry with
it,” Fox said. “It’s simply a lie.”
“One man’s terrorist,” Fernandez said, “is another man’s freedom fighter.”
Then there is the similarity in pay they claim to receive for their Cuba
work — zero.
Fernandez said he takes all cases pro bono.
Fox said he receives no salary for running his alliance.
What’s more, both have roots in the other side of their debate.
Fernandez was born in Cuba. During Castro’s revolution to overthrow
President Fulgencio Batista, Fernandez’ fraternal uncle was a doctor for
Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
His grandmother would tend to wounded revolutionaries at her ranch.
Then when Castro embraced Communism, Fernandez and his parents fled for
Still, he remained on the sidelines of the Cuba debate until 1980 — the
year Castro announced that any Cuban who wanted to relocate to the U.S.
could do so on a boat from the port in Mariel.
Stories he heard of torture at the hands of the Cuban government
inspired him to do his part, Fernandez said.
If Cuban Americans were imprisoned in the U.S. because their work to
overthrow Castro drew criminal charges, he would represent them here for
“Once a jury hears background evidence on the torture any of my clients
endured in Cuba, the case is over,” Fernandez said.
This was actually the Cuba that Fox once imagined, where Castro was a
devil, torture was prevalent, and children were gunned down for voicing
their innocent opposition to Communism.
Then in 1998, Fox — a Tampa native — traveled to Cuba, not for political
reasons but to trace his ancestry.
His grandmother from Spain was one of Cuba’s most beloved opera stars in
He wanted to see where she performed and was shocked by the amount of
paperwork he had to fill out and questions he had to answer for the U.S.
before he could go.
When he visited Cuba, he was even more stunned to learn it wasn’t as
oppressive as he was led to believe. It was not a police state.
The citizens were happy.
And no one hated the U.S.
He formed the Alliance For Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation to promote
this different image of Cuba by bringing as many delegations there as he
“The lies being told in the U.S. about Cuba were embarrassing for our
country,” Fox said. “I’m glad those lies are finally exposed.”
Fernandez counters that Cuba’s government is indeed oppressive and a
danger to U.S. national security, saying men like Fox have been duped.
Those who attend the debate tonight will leave with a better
understanding of both men’s arguments, DeMaio said.
“It is going to be interesting,” he said. “I don’t know how many people
will have their opinions swayed but I guarantee everyone will learn
something new. These men know the issues. They have a lot to say.”
Then again, Fox said with a laugh, perhaps the event isn’t really necessary.
“What are we debating? The other side lost and mine won,” he said. “It
is the official position of the United States government to have
diplomatic relations with Cuba and that has always been a goal of the
alliance. The debate is over.”
Source: Tampa men on opposite sides of the Cuba question to debate in
Ybor | TBO.com and The Tampa Tribune –