Cuba-related donations are down this electoral cycle


Would-be donors say business is bad, there’s fatigue over the Cuba issue, and little chance Congress can change course on Cuba policies.

Just weeks short of the Nov. 6 elections, donors and political action committees linked to Cuba issues are notable by their absence from the campaign.

John Henry Cabañas, the pro-Castro Miami businessman who donated $75,000 to President Barack Obama’s coffers in 2008 and $14,400 to Joe Garcia’s bid for a U.S. congressional seat in 2010, has given them nothing this year.

The U.S. Cuba Now Political Action Committee, created last year to support candidates who favor ending the U.S. embargo, reported in its most recent filing with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) that it had collected only $6,600.

The pro-sanctions U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, which collected $803,000 in 2008, reported taking in $360,000 in its most recent filing to the FEC and said it planned to hit $650,000-$700,00 by Election Day.

Would-be donors say the low levels of Cuba-related contributions this year are due to the slow economy, fatigue with the issue and the likelihood that Congress, stalemated between Democrats and Republicans, can’t significantly change course on Cuba.

Cabañas, whose C&T company charters flights to Cuba, said his business is not good. “I am not donating money because of the economy. My business is not financially strong,” he told El Nuevo Herald.

Although the number of Cuban Americans traveling to the island spiked after Obama lifted virtually all restrictions on such trips in 2009, Cabañas said increased competition has cut his profits to the nub.

Cabañas, 70, also strongly denied campaign whispers that Obama campaign officials asked him not to contribute this year because of his very public support for Fidel Castro. He once called the former Cuban leader “my father.”

A Key West native who moved to Havana soon after Castro seized power in 1959, he worked for counterintelligence before he returned to the United States in 1988, according to a Miami Herald story in 1997. Cabañas denied that report.

Although a registered Republican, he contributed $62,000 to the Democratic Party and its candidates for the 1996 elections and $75,000 to the Obama coffers in 2008. His relatives contributed another $15,000 to Obama.

FEC records show there are eight political action committees (PACs) registered with Cuba-related names, although only three have filed reports for the current electoral season.

No activity was reported by these PACs: Cuba Libre and Free Cuba, both pro-embargo; the anti-sanctions Cuban American Coalition and United States-Cuba PAC; and the moderate New Cuban American Majority.

The latter collected $87,600 in 2010 with the backing of wealthy people like businessman Carlos Saladrigas, pollster Sergio Bendixen and attorney Raul Valdes-Fauli. But some of its leaders grew tired of the Cuba battles and the PAC did not mobilize this year, said one member.

One of the three PACs active this electoral season is the U.S. Cuba Now Political Action Committee, created last year to help political candidates who favor ending the half-century old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba.

Its latest report to the FEC showed it has collected only $6,600, almost half of it from the owners of three Cuba charter companies that would profit from eased U.S. sanctions on the island: Joe Perez of Cuba Travel Services, Maria Aral of ABC and Francisco Aruca of Marazul. It donated $1,000 to Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who opposes sanctions, and $500 to each of five other Congressional candidates.

PAC founder Albert Fox of Tampa said he cut down on fund raising this year because of Obama’s failure to do more to improve relations with Cuba. But he acknowledged that the anti-sanctions side always has more problems raising money

Hugo Cancio, a Miami music promoter and member of the PAC’s board of directors, said polls show a majority of Cuban Americans favor unlimited travel and remittances to the island. But they are not engaged in the U.S. political process because “they came from Cuba in more recent years, looking for the American dream.”

The FEC reports show Aruca also donated $5,000 to the current campaign of Garcia, a Miami Democrat who is running against Rep. David Rivera, R-Fl., an anti-Castro hardliner. Aral gave $2,000 to Garcia and $10,000 to the Obama reelection campaign.

The Cuba Property Rights PAC, created last year to create public awareness on the issue of the private properties nationalized by the Castro government, has raised $8,100, with two donations alone totalling $5,000.

The lone heavyweight Cuba PAC active the year is the pro-sanctions United States-Cuba Democracy, which has made large contributions to more than 100 congressional candidates, including $10,000 to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Executive director Mauricio Claver-Carone said the PAC will report to the FEC by the end of this month that it has raised about $500,000, and hopes to hit a target of $650,000 to $700,000 for the 2012 electoral season.

Although its donors include wealthy Miami car dealer Gus Machado and restaurant owner Felipe Vals, Claver-Carone added that the PAC receives tens of thousands of small donations through its musical fund-raisers — unlike anti-sanctions groups that usually depend on a handful of large donations.

Established in 2003, the PAC collected more money in 2006 and 2008 — $828,000 and $803,000, respectively — because the Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress in those campaigns and were pushing hard to ease sanctions on Cuba, Claver-Carone noted.

With Republicans now controlling the House and Democrats controlling the Senate, he added, “now the status quo is fine and we don’t have to be as active.”

An earlier version of this story gave the wrong date for the November presidential elections.

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