Capitalist or Commie?

How a Miami businessman got rich doing business with Cuba - and lived to shout about it

Miami in 1962 -- post-Bay of Pigs, post Cuban Missile Crisis -- was a madhouse of exile politics, and Aruca said he decided to stay away. So he talked to the priests at Miami's Belen Preparatory School, who told him about another Jesuit institution in Washington, D.C. He got a job as a bellboy at the Madison Hotel, studied English, and entered Georgetown University in September 1963 on a federal student loan program set up for Cuban refugees. He graduated in 1968 with a degree in economics, $10,000 in debts, and not even a passing acquaintance with another overachiever, classmate Bill Clinton.

Aruca stayed in the Washington area for the next five years, taking a master's degree in economics from Catholic University, completing all but his dissertation for a Ph.D., and starting a family with his wife, the former Anita Potts, an Oklahoma native he married in 1966. (The couple has three children, all in their twenties.)

Between 1969 and 1976, Aruca put in time as a graduate student in Washington, a college teacher in Puerto Rico, and an economist with the U.S. Department of Labor. And he also became convinced, he says, that "our isolation from Cuba was absurd, the confrontational approach didn't work, and we needed to build a bridge to the island based on reconciliation." In 1974 he became one of the founders of Areito magazine, based in New York and aimed at opening a dialogue with the Castro government. (Aruca is no longer associated with Areito.) Identified then as a dialoguero, Aruca was one of about 75 Cuban Americans invited by the Castro government to take part in two Havana conferences in the fall of 1978. So Aruca returned to Cuba for the first time in seventeen years, and there, during the first sessions of those controversial "dialogues," Aruca had an epiphany.

"It became obvious to me that the Cuban government was intending to open the country to family visits from the U.S.," he says. "I had been searching for years for a connection to the new Cuban reality, and here it was: a travel agency."

While still working for the Labor Department in Washington, and with no financial backing, Aruca opened Marazul in a rented office on Times Square in New York, selling $850 package trips to Cuba on which his commission was about $50 each. Although he had a few competitors in New York, and at least twenty in Miami, Aruca managed to book about one-fourth of the 100,000 Cubans who returned to the island in 1979, and racked up sales of $1.5 million. By June of that year he realized he no longer needed his government job, and he quit.

After the Mariel boatlift in 1980, the number of exiles permitted to visit Cuba dropped off markedly. But by then Aruca had expanded Marazul's services to include tour packages to Nicaragua, Grenada, and other socialist countries, building a client list and a reputation for special-interest travel with a leftist twist. Says Aruca: "We found our niche."

In 1985, in retaliation for the startup of Radio Marti, Castro suspended all family visits. But thirteen months later, in June 1986, Aruca got a call from Havana: The Cuban government was willing to issue 50 visas per week and offered Marazul an exclusive on booking passage and deciding who would go. After negotiating a fixed price of $395 for the roundtrip, Aruca opened an office in Miami and for the first time chartered his own airplane, a DC-9. He sold the empty seats on each flight to journalists, groups of scholars, and Cubans with special humanitarian visas.

At the same time, Aruca moved to Miami himself, warily. "I was concerned about my security, but not frightened," he says. Nonetheless, for a year he lived in a nondescript West Dade apartment across from the Marazul office while his wife and children stayed in Washington.

In August 1987, Aruca announced plans to celebrate the first anniversary of his Miami operation with a party. Some 800 Marazul customers were invited to the Airport Hilton for dinner and dancing to the music of Cuban-born salsero Willy Chirino. "He was my favorite," says Aruca.

But in the days leading up to the party, Aruca's celebration was swept up by the forces of right-wing radio, as commentators labeled Marazul a Castro-supported enterprise, described Aruca as a Cuban spy, and even speculated that a Cuban diplomat would attend. By the night of the party, Chirino had backed out, Bay of Pigs veterans announced plans to picket the hotel, and Aruca feared his $15,000 investment might have been for nothing. But to his surprise, 600 of the 800 people with reservations showed up, and though Chirino wasn't there, the customers danced to his music on tape.

Between 1987 and 1994, Marazul sent 105,000 Cuban Americans to their homeland, while two competitors, C&T Charters and ABC Charters, booked thousands more. With Clinton's executive order of August 1994 cutting off all but humanitarian flights to Cuba, Aruca instantly lost two-thirds of his business. He closed two of his six Miami offices and laid off 30 employees.

Most days Aruca works from his Southwest Dade home. But on a deliberately irregular schedule -- designed to minimize the chance of trouble -- he also spends some mornings at Marazul's Hialeah office on Palm Avenue. His cubbyhole is spare, with a desk, two chairs, and unadorned white walls; it's clearly a stopover, a place to do a little work and not get too comfortable. Today he is wearing casual slacks, a gray pullover, and half-glasses that slide down his nose. Soon after beginning a long but well-ordered discourse on the tumultuous state of affairs in Miami and his role in the fray, Aruca is gesturing wildly, looking toward the heavens, shifting frenetically in his chair, dropping and then picking up a yellow pencil with which he doodles, in squares and circles, on a legal notepad.

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