There is perhaps no greater moment reflective of how far the Tampa business and political establishment has come in terms of embracing relations with Cuba than the reaction to then Mayor Dick Greco’s surprise visit to the communist island in the summer of 2002.
“In my opinion, it was his finest hour,” recalled Al Fox, speaking on Friday night at the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City. It was Fox, through his Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, that helped negotiate the historic meeting between Greco and Fidel Castro 17 years ago. It was not an easy meeting to broker, as Greco was fully aware that he would alienate the Cuban exile community in Tampa which embraced the embargo designed to bring about the overthrow of the Castro regime.
Over the past two decades, Fox has been the conduit for politicians from around the country to visit Cuba, all part of his ambition to foster positive relations between the two nations in anticipation of the ultimate end to the U.S. embargo that began at the beginning of the Castro era in the early 1960’s.
On Friday night, friends of the 72-year-old activist, including Greco and his wife, Dr. Linda McClintock, gathered at the the Columbia to pay tribute to Fox in what was ostensibly organized as a fundraiser to help defray his legal costs accrued during his battle against the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a division of the U.S. Treasury Department.
Originally, the agency amassed a fine of over $1.4 million against Fox for arranging two trips to Cuba in 2010 and 2011 without obtaining the proper licenses. One meeting was designed for Fox and the Alliance’s efforts to organize the International Association of Drilling Contractors to begin a dialog with the Cuban oil and gas industry on how to protect the Gulf of Mexico from a BP Deepwater Horizon-type oil disaster. The other meeting involved organizing the first inaugural direct flight between Tampa and Havana in over half a century.
Ultimately Fox’s attorney, Arther Heitzer, negotiated a final settlement with the government, reducing the fine to $10,000 for an alleged violation by the Alliance. That was later reduced to nothing, as Fox refused to pay up.
However, he still faces a legal bill of $75,000 that he has been paying off in $500 monthly payments.
“They started on my ass when I took Dick Greco to Cuba,” Fox said earlier in the evening about OFAC’s persecution of him. But what really angered him, he says, is when he learned last year that the agency (based out of Miami, not Washington D.C.) had seized his bank records, beginning from 2009.
“I was livid when I found that out,” Fox recalled. “This is the sh*t that happens in Moscow, or Cuba.”
The good news out of that, Heitzner informed him, was that they had his records from 2009-2012 and found nothing, ultimately charging him with “an alleged violation,” and no ultimate fine.
“What’s unique about this case which we’re settling this legal bill for, is that for the hundreds , if not thousands of people who have gone to Cuba for all types of reasons, legally, illegally, using all kinds of way to get there, Al has been the only person in the US, that the OFAC has gone after to this degree,” says Democratic Party strategist Vic DiMaio, a friend of Fox who helped organize the event.
The sanctions were the first issued by OFAC to an individual at least since 2013.
Also in attendance was Tampa City Council Chair Yolie Capin, who said that “when you work for years and years and your mission does not come in line with the current school of thought, and you persist, that takes courage.”
“That’s what I think of Al Fox.”
Gene Siudut, an editor at La Gaceta who ran last year for the Tampa City Council District 7 seat, says that, above all else, Fox is an educator.
“Everything that I know about Cuba right now I know I’ve learned from Al Fox,” Siudat said. “He’s open my eyes, and a lot of people’s eyes.”
Fox created his Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation in 2001 to advocate for cooperation with Cuba. Since then, he’s taken part in more than 100 delegations to Cuba, helping bring about pioneering partnerships between the two nations and changes in U.S. policy.
A Tampa native, he was not well known in his native city when he returned after a career in Washington D.C. in 2006 to run for a seat in Congress left open when Jim Davis opted to run for Florida governor.
Fox ran on a campaign of re-establishing relations between Tampa and Cuba, but it didn’t catch on at the time. In fact, Fox angered many in the Cuban exile community in Tampa.
“We’ve been called and gotten letters and all sorts of demeaning and terrible things,” Fox’s wife Anne said in introducing him on Friday night. Referring to their daughter, Ms. Fox said ” she knows we have to stand up for what we thinks is best and do the right thing at all times. It’s not always easy.”
Fox lost that 2006 run to Kathy Castor, who in 2013 made headlines blasting the U.S. sanctions against Cuba more forcefully than any previous Florida legislator. Castor later traveled to the island that year, where she called for an end to the U.S. imposed sanctions on Cuba.
Also in attendance on Friday was WEDU and WMNF journalist Rob Lorei, who called Fox “fearless” because of his support for fostering better relations with Cuba long before it was a popular thing to do in Tampa.
“Back in the day, Al would set up events and there would be protests outside,” Lorei recalled. “We’d be scared. I was a moderator of panel, and there were protests outside, and I think Al had the guts, had the vision to say this is coming, we’ve gotta live with it, and it’s a good thing for Tampa Bay, so Al’s been a pioneer.”
Fox’s battles with the government for his support for improving relations aren’t just at the federal level. Although he came to an agreement with the city of Tampa regarding a bogus DUI arrest a year ago, he still is pursuing charges against former Tampa Police Sgt. Ray Fernandez, the officer who pulled Fox over on Dale Mabry on July 21, 2013. That’s where he was subjected to a field sobriety test, and ultimately arrested, strip-searched twice and held in jail for 12 hours. YetaAn alcohol breath test and urinalysis found no alcohol in his body, and a breath test showed his blood-alcohol content was 0.00. Prosecutors later dropped the charge against him.
In December of 2014, former President Barack Obama ordered the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba and the opening of an embassy in Havana. Although President Trump threatened to rollback those Obama moves when he was campaigning, his administration has done nothing so far on the issue. Press Secretary Sean Spicer said in February that the administration was conducting a “full review” of all US policies towards the island nation.