By Terrence McCoy
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"I am a total defender of freedom of enterprise -- total," he says. "One of the things I resent about the U.S. government is that it is regulating my industry. So many of my values a conservative would feel very comfortable with. I believe in a market society -- I do."
Says Wayne Smith: "Aruca is the prototype of the Cuban-American businessman. The future government of Cuba and its leaders will come from within the country, but the community [in Miami] will have an economic role. And Aruca is exactly the prototype."
Business opportunities are not officially on the agenda this Saturday, November 4, when Aruca and a couple of hundred other moderate-to-liberal Cuban Americans will be in Havana at the invitation of the Castro government for the second conference called "The Nation and Emigration." The express purpose of the three-day meeting is to find common ground between the Castro regime and el exilio on matters of family visits and immigration. But in the supercharged atmosphere of change wafting over the Florida Straits in recent weeks, and given the Cubans' desperate hunger for U.S. dollars, almost anything could happen. A group of heavy-hitter U.S. business executives visited the island in early October, and in the previous month the Cuban government approved a foreign-investment law that would allow even Cuban Americans to own businesses there. Last week, during Castro's widely publicized visit to New York for the United Nations anniversary bash, Aruca and several other Cuban Americans joined movie stars, business leaders, and politicians at a reception hosted by the Cuban president as part of his campaign to attract foreign investment and sympathy.
Says Aruca: "I have not invested in Cuba, although Cuban Americans and exiles in other countries have. But as soon as it's legal to do it, I will -- with tourism projects. We have a well-established position in the Cuban-American community, with four offices selling retail travel and packages. I am ready as soon as it's legal -- travel business, tourism, perhaps hotels."
Castro himself has shown renewed interest in taking the temperature of Cuban Americans on the issue of normalizing relations, and has met one-on-one with at least five Miamians recently, including former political prisoner Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, who has asked permission to return to Cuba as head of an opposition party.
But this past May, weeks before Gutierrez Menoyo's well-publicized meeting, Aruca was in his room at Havana's Copacabana Hotel when the telephone rang. "Aruca," said the caller, a government bureaucrat who deals with exile affairs, "there is a good chance Fidel may want to see you later today. Would you be available?"
"Si, como no," replied Aruca. Of course.
Despite the opinion of many in Miami that he is virtually a salaried spokesman for the Cuban president, he had only met Castro in person twice previously, both times at public receptions. The first occasion was in 1978, during the Havana dialogue that led to the release of 3000 Cuban political prisoners and inflamed passions in Miami for years. The two shook hands again in April 1994 during the first conference on the Nation and Emigration, just after Magda Montiel Davis was caught on a widely broadcast videotape that shows her kissing El Comandante and turning into a pariah.
A second phone call last May came at midnight. Aruca abandoned an American movie on HBO to be escorted to Castro's office in the Central Committee Building, where the president was waiting with Vice President Carlos Lage; Aruca's close friend Eusebio Leal, a historian and Cuban television personality; and a couple of Cuban government functionaries. They sat in a grouping of leather armchairs, and for a couple of hours they talked -- about Aruca's recent vacation in Canada, about eating Alaskan king crab, and finally about what Castro really wanted to discuss: the mood of Cuban-American Miami.
"Basically, he wanted to know my ideas about things in Miami, with the Cuban-American community," recalls Aruca. "It was polite, friendly. He put his foot up on the edge of the coffee table. He seemed relaxed. He said, 'Let me know your opinions.'"
As rare as it may be for a legendary talker like Castro to yield the floor, it would have been equally rare for Aruca to pass up an open invitation for palaver, with Fidel or anyone else. So he didn't. He says he began by telling Castro that a growing percentage of Cuban Americans are not exiles, but immigrants. They may be concerned about Cuba, but their lives are in the U.S., not on the island. At the same time, Aruca went on, Cuban Americans favor changes in Cuba that will lead to democracy, family reunification, and the right to travel to the island. He told Castro that the Cuban government had failed to develop a consistent policy in response to that agenda.
"Castro only interrupted me once," Aruca recalls, "and that was when I said that one day there would be an alternative group in Miami with a broader sense of purpose than the Cuban American National Foundation. He asked, 'What do you mean by broad?' I said, 'I mean a group that would encompass different political views but maintain a strong family and business agenda.' He said, 'If broad, yes.'"