Ties to Cuba Enhance and Entangle Jorge Mas’s Marlins Bid


In May 2008, Barack Obama spoke with Mas Santos in Miami

By JAMES WAGNER, The New York Times

Throughout his life, Jorge Mas Santos has had a passion for Cuba, family, business and sports.

Now, as one of the wealthiest people in Miami and a serious contender to buy the Miami Marlins, Mas may be able to combine his interests in a way that would have an impact on baseball and, perhaps, the larger world of politics.

In Mas — who inherited his family’s business from his father, Jorge Mas Canosa, who died in 1997 — baseball sees a deep-pocketed investor with strong local roots. As a Cuban-American, Mas, 54, would also give Major League Baseball its second owner of Latino background. (Arte Moreno of the Los Angeles Angels is Mexican-American.)

Operating in Miami, a city remade by Cuban exiles and other Latin American immigrants, Mas could make the Marlins the linchpin in baseball’s efforts to expand its Latino audience.

“Who better to own the Miami Marlins than someone born and raised in Miami, and with the pedigree of the Mas family?” said Raul Sanchez de Varona, who went to high school with Mas and is now a real estate developer in South Florida.

But if Mas does get the Marlins franchise, his family history could possibly affect baseball’s continuing efforts to create a working relationship with Cuba, one that would allow players from the island to join the major leagues in an orderly fashion instead of having to endure various dangers in order to defect.

It was Mas’s father, after all, who was regularly reviled by the Cuban media as the leader of “the counterrevolutionary Miami mafia” because of his longstanding efforts to cripple the government of Fidel Castro.

Those efforts began after the elder Mas fled Cuba in 1960, not long after Castro took power. Jorge Mas Canosa initially advocated armed struggle to overthrow Castro but later shifted to determined advocacy, founding the Cuban American National Foundation in 1981 and making it a powerful lobbying group against Castro in Washington.

But Mas’s attitude toward Cuba appears to have moved away from his father’s tough stance. Back in 1999, he did sound like his father when he spoke out strongly against the decision by the Baltimore Orioles to play two exhibition games against the Cuban national team, a move that was backed by the administration of President Bill Clinton.

In an opinion piece in The Washington Times, Mas argued that the baseball diplomacy being practiced by the Clinton administration was “ill-conceived and ill-timed” and shifted focus away from “human rights abuses under Fidel Castro’s ruthless dictatorship.”

But just two years later, several members of the foundation’s board quit, contending the group was, in fact, starting to soften its stance toward Cuba under Mas’s leadership. “Institutions evolve and strategies evolve,” Mas responded at the time.

And when President Barack Obama, in his second term, acted to re-establish diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, Mas advised him and expressed his support. He said last month in an interview with El País that he wanted to see Cuba enter a “modern era,” and that desire took precedence over continuing a “war against the Castros.”

What Cuba would think of all this if Mas does take over the Marlins remains to be seen. The country is now led by Raúl Castro, who succeeded Fidel, his ailing brother, in 2008. Fidel Castro died last year.

At the All-Star Game this month, which was played in Miami and which Mas attended, Commissioner Rob Manfred brushed aside a reporter’s question about the Mas family’s longstanding activism in connection with Cuba and instead focused on the strong links between the family and Miami.

“One of the things we always like to see in an ownership group is deep, deep roots in the community,” Manfred said. “I’m not concerned with anybody’s particular political beliefs.”

Mas himself has not publicly addressed his bid for the Marlins, and he did not respond to several requests for comment for this article. But those who know him describe him as a driven businessman and committed civic leader with, among other things, an abiding interest in sports.

“He loves his Miami and he loves his Cuban heritage,” said Arthur Laffer, the well-known economist from the Reagan administration and a longtime ally of the Mas family.

“Having an in-house owner makes a lot of difference,” Laffer added. “He’ll go to the games. He’ll rain pride on Miami.”

A new owner, especially a local one who understands the diverse cultural landscape of South Florida, could inject new energy into a franchise that has not reached the playoffs since winning the 2003 World Series. The team consistently ranks among the worst in attendance despite a $650 million retractable-dome stadium that debuted in 2012 and was paid for almost entirely by the city and county.

The team’s current owner, Jeffrey Loria, wants to sell the Marlins for an estimated $1.2 billion, nearly eight times what he paid for the club 15 years ago. He is an unpopular owner who has come under fire over the years for failing to invest enough to improve the on-field product.

He is now apparently choosing among three bidders. One group is led by Derek Jeter, the former Yankees great, who has a waterfront home in Tampa, Fla. Tagg Romney, son of Mitt Romney, the 2012 presidential candidate, counts Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, in his group.

And then there is Mas, who through his personal fortune is believed to be putting more of his own money into the bidding than anyone else in the three groups. Mas sat with Loria during the All-Star Game.

A person with knowledge of the bidding competition said Mas extended an offer to Jeter last month to join forces, with the understanding that Jeter would run the Marlins’ baseball operations if Major League Baseball awarded Mas the franchise.

But the offer, that person said, was rejected by Jeter, who preferred to continue his own bid.

Mas has expressed interest in the Marlins before. In 1997, he considered investing in a group vying to buy the team from Wayne Huizenga, the owner then. Now, 20 years later, he is trying again.

Mas grew up around sports. He played basketball regularly with his father and brothers in the backyard of their home in Pinecrest, Fla., an affluent suburb in Miami-Dade County. The games were roughhouse affairs, said Joe Garcia, a family friend and former United States congressman.

“The father said, ‘Better to foul someone than let them take the shot,’” Garcia said. “It was very physical basketball.”

Mas was also a middle infielder on his high school baseball team. His head coach was Jim Hendry, who would later become general manager of the Chicago Cubs and now serves as a special assistant with the Yankees.

Mas’s wealth comes from MasTec, of which he is chairman, a company that made its name by digging trenches and laying telecommunications cables during South Florida’s boom. The company expanded nationally and became the first Latino-owned company to crack $1 billion in revenue in 1998. Last year it had revenue of $5.1 billion.

It is all a far cry from when Mas’s father arrived in the United States and began working as a milkman. From there he joined a telecommunications utility company, Iglesias y Torres, and ultimately became the owner, renaming it Church & Tower. As the business flourished and merged with a similar company, MasTec was formed.

At the same time, the senior Mas took on a highly visible role in urging a tough stance toward Fidel Castro.

“He was the George Washington of the free Cubans,” Laffer said.

There are reminders of the Mas family’s story all over Miami. A middle school in southwest Miami is named after Mas’s father, and the mascot is a paladin. A portion of Southwest 157th Avenue near the school was renamed Mas Canosa Paladin Avenue. The youth center in the city of Sweetwater, west of downtown Miami, is named after Mas’s father as well.

The family’s charitable foundation gives scholarships to students of Cuban descent. And Mas has served on the board at the business school of his alma mater, the University of Miami. He and his two brothers, all graduates of Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, have all worked in the family business, and also fund a program for gifted students at the school.

At the time of his death, Mas’s father was one of the richest Latino businesspeople in the United States, with a net worth of $100 million. He groomed his eldest son to run the company so that he could spend as much time as possible on the Cuban American National Foundation.

“He inherited a great company from his father,” said Laffer, who has served on the boards of the foundation and MasTec. “There were some rough periods there as he transitioned. And then he kept it great, and made it even greater.”

When his father died of cancer at 58, Mas felt a responsibility to carry on the work at the foundation, although some friends advised against it.

“His father had taken on this mythical existence,” said Garcia, who at one point was executive director of the foundation. “I worried that it would be really hard on him. He did it because he was worried about the course of the institution his father had created.”

It had, Garcia said, skewed “too much to the right.”

“No one can be their father,” Garcia added. He said Mas had proved to be pragmatic in the way his attitudes toward Cuba had evolved in the years after his father’s death, and indeed those views are finding more and more welcome ears among Cuban-Americans.

The new wave of Cuban immigrants with family still on the island, or the younger generation of Cubans born in the United States, have been more willing to accept the thaw that was heightened by Obama’s actions. Even some older Cuban-Americans have agreed with the establishment of diplomatic relations and the easing of travel restrictions.

Sanchez de Varona, the South Florida developer, a second-generation Cuban-American, grew up hearing about the effects of the Communist regime in Cuba from his family. But he acknowledged that perspectives change. He, himself, ended up visiting Cuba last fall.

“I don’t know where George’s dad would have been with all of this,” Sanchez de Varona said, using Jorge Mas’s Anglicized nickname from high school. “But George’s dad was a very intelligent man. Maybe he would have realized it was time for a change.”

In March 2016, the Obama administration and Major League Baseball worked together to arrange a game in which the Tampa Bay Rays played the Cuban national team in Havana. Major League Baseball and Cuba discussed ways for Cuban players to sign with an American team without having to defect, often in harrowing circumstances.

President Trump has sought to roll back some of the changes that Obama instituted in connection with Cuba, and those efforts, too, could have an impact on baseball’s interest in reaching some sort of agreement with Cuba about its players.

Either way, Mas could soon find himself as one of baseball’s select group of 30 owners.

Or as Garcia put it: “I’m sure it’s not lost on Jorge or M.L.B. or the people of Cuba that this son of an immigrant is now in contention to buy the ball team.”

Rafael Lima, a professor at the University of Miami, pointed to the story of “a rags-to-riches family in which the kid, the heir of this empire, now can be the owner of this baseball team, which in Cuba is a huge symbol.”

“I’d even think that in Cuba, owning the Marlins is more of a symbol of success than MasTec, a construction company,” Lima said.

And then there was the viewpoint of Rafael Villa, a Marlins fan who lives in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami and was sitting outside Marlins Park during the All-Star Game.

Villa said that he fled Cuba 40 years ago but that Mas’s more moderate stance toward the island did not bother him. “Things have to change, my friend,” he said.

What really was important, Villa added, was an upgrade in the fortunes of the team.

“I’d love to see a new owner, someone who gets and keeps good players,” he said. “People come to see the stars. I want to come here and see my stars.”


Your Editor Encourages: Jorge Mas was my friend, though we differed on Cuba. His sons’ love for baseball is unifying.  

The Favored Immigrant No More: Lifting Embargo Impact on Cuban Immigration


By Vienna Flores, Law and Business Review of the Americas

“DEPORTATION, Deportation, Deportation!” These three words seem to encompass America’s approach towards immigrants. Yet Cuban immigrants are treated differently. For almost fifty years, the turbulent political relationship between the United States and Cuba provided relaxed immigration policies for Cubans sailing away from communism. Cubans risked their lives to cross the tumultuous sea and reach the shores of a better tomorrow. But with recent discussions of improved relations between the neighboring countries, the tides are changing.

This report analyzes whether the effects of improved relations between the United States and Cuba will affect favorable Cuban immigration laws. Section one analyzes the history of the Cuban embargo. Section two discusses the history of the Cuban Adjustment Act and U.S. immigration laws. Section three focuses on the revival of economic ties with Cuba by the Obama Administration. Finally, section four deliberates the effects of lifting the Cuban embargo on the Cuban Adjustment Act.


Bitter disagreements between the United States and Cuba have caused a long-held political grudge that has excluded Cuba from the rest of the world for more than fifty years.* 1 This state of rancor, however, would have been unexpected a century ago. After its bitter defeat in the Spanish-American War in 1898, Spain renounced its rights to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam, among others, and granted the lands to the United States.2 Cuba’s elusive independence came shortly thereafter. Despite that independence, the United States maintained the right to involve itself in Cuban affairs and continued to station troops in the country.3 The Platt Amendment of 1903 furthered U.S. involvement in Cuba by also “permitt[ing] the United States to lease or buy lands for the purpose of . . . establishing naval bases. . . and coaling stations in Cuba.”4 The United States wanted to remain connected with Cuba to promote “a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty.”5 Nevertheless, Franklin D. Roosevelt repealed the act in 1934.6

Then came the Cuban Revolution, led by a young, politically-charged man named Fidel Castro.7 Castro initiated the Revolution after the then President, General Fulgencio Batista, overthrew the standing government and cancelled political elections in 1952, elections in which Castro intended to participate.8 Angry about the state of the government, Castro and his brother, Raúl, tried to create an uprising, failed, and landed in prison.9 Castro was released from prison in 1955.10 He then fled to Mexico to plan his next move with the help of a young Marxist named Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.* 11 In 1956, Castro, prepared for vengeance, began his attacks against Batista.12 Meanwhile, the United States imposed an “arms embargo against Batista’s government,” indicating support for Castro’s movement.13 Castro finally overthrew Batista and became Cuba’s leader late in December of 1958.14 The country hailed Castro as a hero15 and the United States “immediately recognized the new regime.”16

But the United States’ embrace was not long-lived. By 1960, Castro’s communism swept the country when he took all private land and companies and placed a heavy tax on U.S. products.17 Castro completely opposed American interference in Cuban affairs and had no reservations about sharing that opinion.18 In 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued a “unilateral embargo on all exports to Cuba.”19 Castro responded by executing favorable trade laws with the Soviet Union, which the United States saw as absolute betrayal and the final straw.20 On February 7, 1962, President John F. Kennedy issued the now infamous Cuban Embargo that economically and diplomatically isolated Cuba.21

President Kennedy’s proclamation urged that Cuba’s alignment with Soviet Communism and “the present Government of Cuba [was] incompatible with the principles and objectives of the Inter-American system.”22 Under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961,23 President Kennedy instituted the embargo against “importation into the United States of all goods of Cuban origin and all goods imported from or through Cuba,” and all exports.24 The embargo also severed any existing ties between the United States and Cuba.25 This marked the beginning of bitterness and countless grim occasions between two neighboring countries.26


The embargo caused food shortages and increased poverty to sweep through Cuba.27 Because of the enduring problems, the United States gave Cubans the opportunity to escape the Communist regime by legally fleeing to America.28 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services provided refugee or asylum status when a person had been “persecuted or fear[ed] they [would] be persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality, and/or membership in a particular social group or political opinion.”29 Refugees are people who are outside of their country and do not return due to fear of impending harm.30 By contrast, asylees are those who qualify as refugees, but are already in the United States.31 The privilege of lawful Cuban immigration to the United States has persisted since November 2, 1966, because of the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA).32 “Cubans are the only nationality to which Congress has awarded this special treatment.”33 The CAA provided that

any alien who is a native or citizen of Cuba and who has been inspected and admitted or paroled into the United States subsequent to January 1, 1959 and has been physically present in the United States for at least two years, may be adjusted by the Attorney General, in his discretion and under such regulations as he may prescribe, to that of an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence if the alien makes an application for such adjustment, and the alien is eligible to receive an immigrant visa and is admissible to the United States for permanent residence.34

The act was later amended to allow adjustment of permanent status after one year and one day of presence in the United States.35 The CAA also applies to the spouse and child of a Cuban refugee, regardless of their place of birth or nationality.36 Persons fleeing Cuba are “presumed to be refugees under international law,” which Congress used to justify the CAA.37 There was no limit to the number of people granted refugee or asylee status in the beginning.38

The Cold War’s end caused turbulent economic times that pounded Cuba in the 1980s, causing more Cubans to seek political asylum in foreign countries, including the United States.39 Castro allowed Cubans to travel to the United States on boats from the Mariel Port if they were unhappy and wanted to leave.40 But Castro also maliciously sent criminals and mental hospital patients to Florida coasts, and then refused to take them back.41 The “Mariel Boatlift” led to an estimated 125,000 undocumented immigrants entering the United States.42 With that surge of Cuban immigration in mind, the United States set boundaries and worked with Cuba to promote “safe, legal, and orderly immigration.”43

At the time, President Bill Clinton claimed that “[t]he Cuban Government [would] not succeed in any attempt to dictate American immigra-. tion policy.”44 Clinton’s stance came to be known as the “wet-foot, dryfoot” policy, in which Cubans found at sea would not be granted asylum or refugee status.45 Instead, they would be taken to Guantanamo Bay or returned to Cuba without ever having the opportunity to gain legal immigration status in the United States.46 This changed the previously enthusiastic outlook of Cuban immigration but continued to help those who reached the United States without interception by the U.S. Coast Guard.47 It also limited the number of visas provided for Cubans to 20,000 per year.48


After the embargo was executed, the United States continued to enact legislation to advance its plan of politically isolating Cuba. The Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 encouraged the President to advise other countries trading with Cuba to sever their ties.49 All countries failing to follow the United States’ advice would be subject to sanctions.50 The Cuban Democracy Act’s projection of U.S. power was polemic and denounced by the United Nations multiple times as an impermissible extraterritorial extension of U.S. jurisdiction.51 Nonetheless, the United States strengthened its boycott once again in 1996, after Cuba shot down two U.S. civilian planes, through The Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, also known as the Helms-Burton Act.52 The act provided that any foreign countries continuing trade with Cuba would also have an embargo enforced against them.53

But finally, after a devastating hurricane in 2001, the United States graciously decided to help Cuba by allowing American companies to sell food to the country.54 It was the first positive gesture between the two countries in many years. In December of 2014, President Obama “ordered the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba and the opening of an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half-century as he vowed to ‘cut loose the shackles of the past’ and sweep aside one of the last vestiges of the Cold War.”55 On January 16, 2015, the Expert Administration Regulations was amended to “authorize the export and re-export of certain items to Cuba that [were] intended to improve the living conditions of the Cuban people; support independent economic activity and strengthen civil society in Cuba; and improve the free flow of information to, from, and among, the Cuban people.”56 The adjustments were meant to help improve Cuba’s communication with the rest of the word by allowing for the commercial sale of software, hardware, and other devices.57

The Department of Treasury amended the Cuban Assets Control Regulation policy to “facilitate travel” between the United States and Cuba by authorizing airlines to fly to Cuba.58 Additionally, U.S. financial institutions are now allowed to open accounts in Cuba and individuals are allowed to send more money to family members there.59 On May 29, 2015, the United States removed Cuba from its terror list.60 Just a month later, the United States and Cuba announced that they would restore diplomatic ties and reopen their respective embassies.61

Regardless of the advances, however, eradicating the entire embargo will be difficult. The United Nations has attempted to condemn the U.S. embargo for twenty-two years without any success.62 Lifting the embargo requires the approval of not only Congress, but the president as well.63 In any event, the many laws affecting Cuba-especially those that address accessible Cuban immigration policy-will be the source of much political debate in the upcoming months.


The mere mention of immigration sows discord. This negative stigma has put immigration reform on every political agenda. Yet resolution seems elusive. The same holds true for the CAA, especially given recent talks of restoring relations with Cuba.64 The United States’ relationship with Cuba improves daily, which undoubtedly means that the current immigration policies are subject to change. It also suggests that the once favorable act may be terminated forever. Congress had an initial goal with the CAA: to free Cuba “from Communist domination [so] that Cuban people [would], again, be able to enjoy the benefits of freedom.”65 The CAA continues to encourage Cubans to flee oppression. As of 2013, the Pew Research Center reported that there were 1,889,000 Cubans in the United States.66

With the immense amounts of Cuban immigrants traversing dangerous seas to reach a safe haven, the United States adopted the strict immigration regulations mentioned above. The Cuban Adjustment Act was amended in 1996 to include a provision that the law would be “repealed” once Cuba had “a democratically elected government” in power.67 Although this has yet to happen, politicians have not wasted any time arguing against the act. With the progress between the two countries, it appears likely that the CAA will change in the upcoming years. Politicians now believe Cuban immigrants will abuse the system by traveling to the United States and merely claiming persecution, and then staying for a year and a day to gain legal status before returning to Cuba.68

Moreover, most Cubans still come to the United States “seeking better economic conditions” instead of “fleeing political persecution” as required for asylum.69 The newly amended laws will exacerbate this problem because travel between the two countries will grant Cubans easier access to the United States and increase the number of immigrants seeking refugee status.70 With increased immigration concerns, many argue that the CAA unjustly favors Cubans over other immigrants71 and that the policy should be eradicated “to foster safe and orderly migration and to save lives.”72 But it would take congressional power to repeal the longstanding law.73

President Obama announced that there would no change to immigration policy.74 But if there were to be a change, the number of undocumented immigrants would spike. The current act requires Cubans to wait a year and a day before applying for legal status.75 A sort of immigration limbo exists until then. When a Cuban first arrives in the United States they are paroled into the country.76 Parole allows a person to enter the country for a specific reason, including “urgent humanitarian reasons,” and considers the person an inadmissible non-citizen.77 If the act were repealed, many paroled Cubans would be unable to apply for lawful residence and, in turn, would remain in the country as undocumented immigrants unless they were grandfathered in. Improved diplomatic relations lessen any chance for recognition of a “humanitarian crisis” that would allow Cubans to realize refugee or asylum status.78

But what if restoring the relationship between the two countries does not improve conditions in Cuba? America believed in fostering Cuban immigrants because communism was politically oppressive-a view antithetical to the United States’ continued business with and support of other communist countries.79 Even if Cuba does not become a democratic country, the United States will surely change its immigration policies soon.

NiLP Note: With anti-immigrant fervor at a high point in the country, we keep getting asked about the status of the Cuban Adjustment Act and whether it is also being criticized or not. There is some resentment that Cubans occupy a privelged position among immigrants as a holdover of Cold War politics and whether it is about time that this Act should be ended. This, however, is doubtful under a Trump Administration. So we thought you would find the article below outlinng this issues involved helpful.  —Angelo Falcón  

Your Editor Proclaims: If the Obama decision to “go home” is good for Cunbans, non-Cubans and especially Latin Americans, let’s give it a chance. No instant gratification there. 



President Trump speaking about Cuba in Miami on Friday. Al Drago/The New York Times

Fans of Cuban rum and cigars can rest easy. So can the Starwood chain, which has a deal to manage a historic hotel in Havana. But Americans who want to vacation in Cuba or start doing business there will find it harder as a result of President Trump’s misguided decision to slam the brakes on a two-year-old diplomatic opening with the island.

Mr. Trump told a cheering crowd in Miami on Friday that his goal is to achieve a “free Cuba.” In truth, his new policy is just the latest chapter in a spiteful political crusade to overturn crucial elements of his predecessor’s legacy while genuflecting to Cuban-Americans in Miami’s exile community who helped put him in office.

By now, Mr. Trump has perfected the art not of the deal but of dismantling what went before. “I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba,” he declared, an exaggeration in that he reversed only parts of it. But they were important parts, including relaxations on travel and commerce negotiated by President Barack Obama. The net result is that Cuban-American relations are likely to revert to a more adversarial Cold War footing, undermining Washington’s standing in Latin America.

Under the new policy, Americans may no longer plan their own private trips to Cuba, and those who travel with authorized education tours will be subject to new rules to ensure that they are not tourists. American companies and citizens will be barred from doing business with firms controlled by the Cuban military or its intelligence services, thus denying Americans access to critical parts of the Cuban economy, including much of the tourism sector.

Mr. Trump’s policy rests on a cynical and historically bogus foundation. The aim, he says, is to force Cuban leaders to end repression, embrace democracy and open their economy. “We will not be silent in the face of Communist oppression any longer,” he said, adding that Mr. Obama’s brief détente has only empowered the Communist government and enriched the military. But 50 years of isolationist, hard-line sanctions never produced the ouster of Cuba’s Communist regime that anti-Castro activists had hoped for.

Mr. Trump’s sudden concern for human rights is particularly hard to swallow. No recent president has been so disdainful of these rights or embraced so lovingly authoritarians who abuse their people, like Vladimir Putin of Russia and the Saudi royal family.

And while Mr. Trump says he wants to deprive the Cuban state of income from American dollars, many Cubans say the real victims will be the entrepreneurs who have benefited from the thousands of American tourists who visited Cuba over the last two years. If Mr. Trump would open his mind to facts like these, instead of succumbing to the blandishments of cheering crowds and political sycophants, he would learn that three-quarters of all American adults favor Mr. Obama’s decision to re-establish ties with Cuba.

About the best that can be said is that his reversal is not as bad as it might have been. Embassies in Washington and Havana will stay open, direct flights between the two countries will continue, and Cuban-Americans will still be able to travel freely to Cuba and send money to relatives there.

That’s little comfort, given Mr. Trump’s harsh tone. The president leaves real questions about the future of bilateral agreements on health care cooperation, joint planning to mitigate oil spills, coordination on counternarcotics efforts and intelligence-sharing — and real questions about a truly productive relationship with an old adversary that Mr. Trump seems determined to turn into a new one.

Your Editor Reminds: After 100 years, Obama is the American who went Home. And we love him for it

‘Where Do Cuban Tourists Go to Splurge? Moscow’s Flea Markets


Found in Moscow’s Flea Markets: Car Parts, Jeans and Bargain-Hunting Cubans

They fly 13 hours seeking items to sell in a Communist island still starved of consumer goods

By Anatoly Kurmanaev and Siranush Sharoyan, The Wall Street Journal

Sometimes the wheels of history turn slowly. The hottest shopping destination for Cubans is not across the water in Miami. It’s Moscow, 6,000 miles away.

Tougher U.S. border control and rising remittance income from relatives abroad have led to a recent surge of Cuban travel to Russia, the only major country that still doesn’t ask islanders for a visa. Cuban shoppers don’t take the daily 13-hour Aeroflot flight, a legacy of the Soviet-era alliance, to see the Kremlin or the Red Square. They bring back bags of jeans, haberdashery and car parts to a Communist island starved of consumer goods.

Cafe El Paladar Cubano at the Moskva flea market in Moscow.

“The Cubans are flooding in without speaking a word of Russian just to stock up,” said Ricardo Trieto, a Russian-educated Cuban engineer who now translates for compatriot shoppers in Moscow’s flea markets. “It’s very profitable: Whatever you buy here you can sell it for more at home.”

The U.S. trade embargo with Cuba remains in place despite the fact that President Barack Obama loosened restrictions for Americans to travel to Cuba last year and opened a U.S. Embassy in Havana in 2015 after more than half a century of severed ties. President Donald Trump has said he would roll back Mr. Obama’s Cuban initiatives. All of this has helped revive a very Cold War-sounding trading relationship between Russia and Cuba.

Consider the need for car parts in Cuba. Given the U.S. trade embargo, most cars in Cuba are either American-made cars from the 1950s or Soviet-era jalopies. The square-shaped models of Ladas and Nivas all but disappeared from Moscow’s streets years ago.

In Cuba, they are still going strong. Well, when they don’t break down and need new parts, the shortage of which can produce some spectacular profits.

In Moscow, a 1980 Moskvich—another boxy offering from the Soviet era— might fetch around $500. In embargoed Cuba, it can go for as much as $14,000, Cuban taxi drivers say, fueling a booming cottage industry specializing in cannibalized car parts for the Caribbean island.

At the sprawling Yuznii Port used-car market in southern Moscow, traders say up to 40% of the business comes from Cuban shoppers. “We would’ve gone broke without them,” said trader Timur Muradian.

On a gray winter morning, a dozen Cubans dressed in ill-fitting beanie hats and gray puffer jackets walked around the market’s metal containers filled with rusty car parts. Several extra layers of clothing and skin darker than most locals easily gave them away to traders, who wooed them with shouts of “hola, amigo.”

“I can buy anything I want here; it’s unbelievable,” said Alejandro, who flew from Havana for the first time to buy tractor parts.

Waving hands and typing into calculators with frozen fingers, the Cubans haggled over prices in the thousands of dollars for heaps of what most locals would consider useless scrap. “They buy up everything for Russian cars and tractors by weight, without even looking at what parts and models they are for,” said Mr. Muradian. “Whatever it is, they’ll be able to sell it at a profit at home.”

A typical group of Cubans spends $3,000 to $7,000 in the market, stall owners say. These are astronomical sums for residents of an island where the average wage is $25 a month.

Back in Cuba, whole villages chip in to send an envoy on shopping trips to Moscow, often using remittances from relatives in Miami or Madrid. Residents of the Rodas village in Cuba’s central sugar belt said their cane would rot in the fields without an annual trip to Moscow to buy parts for their 1970s Soviet tractors.

Some of the workers in this cottage trading industry are part of the tens of thousands of Cubans who went to the former Soviet Union as students. They studied engineering, medicine and science and returned to develop their Communist homeland. But when the Soviet Union and its subsidies collapsed in 1991, they often found themselves working as waiters and security guards for minimum wage.

Soviet-educated Cuban engineer Raul Curo came back to live in Russia several years ago. He bought a taxi and became part of Moscow’s booming Cuban expatriate community, servicing shoppers from the island. Mr. Curo meets Cubans in the airport and drives them around the city’s flea markets, helping to translate and haggle.

“Everyone loves Cubans here. It’s been like this since Khrushchev,” Mr. Curo said, referring to the Soviet leader who risked nuclear Armageddon by striking an alliance with Cuba in the 1960s and deploying missiles there.

During the low season, translator Mr. Trieto makes money giving Spanish lessons to Azerbaijani and Armenian stall owners in the city’s flea markets. Others make ends meet giving salsa lessons in Moscow night spots such as Old Havana.

Most Cuban shoppers come to Moscow for about a week and spend whole days trawling the city’s flea markets to collect the 260 pounds worth of goods they are allowed on the plane for a fee.

They borrow boots and parkas from friends and family and sleep on double-bunks in crammed Soviet-era apartments owned by Cuban expatriates. “I’ve never been this cold in my life, but I’m getting used to it,” said shopper Abelito. He said his first purchase was the warmest jacket he could find on the entire 150 acres of the Sadovod flea market.

At the entrance of Lyublino’s budget Moskva shopping center is a Cuban canteen adorned with pictures of the island’s lush rolling hills and a photo of President Vladimir Putin with the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The Cuban cook serves up cheap homemade dishes of rice, beans and shredded pork.

The shopping center offers a translation service and Cuban immigrants work in the center’s cheap jewelry stalls. An Azerbaijani stall owner haggled in broken Spanish with a group of Cubans over a stack of jeans on a recent visit.

“They basically live in the bazaar,” said taxi driver Mr. Curo of his compatriot shoppers. “They came, they bought up, and they left. In a couple of months, they are back.”

—Dmitry Filonov contributed to this article.

Write to Anatoly Kurmanaev at Anatoly.kurmanaev@wsj.com

Your Editor Marvels: Quien lo iba a decir???

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