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Among Cuban-American Business Leaders, Divided Views On Way Forward

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Tourists ride a classic American convertible car along the Malecon beside the United States Embassy as Cuban flags fly in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, July 26, 2015. Desmond Boylan / AP

MIAMI, Florida -- In December, a group of 10 Cuban-American business leaders, including some Republicans, traveled to Cuba, to see for themselves if anything had changed since the December 2014 historic announcement that the U.S. and Cuba would restore diplomatic ties. The group returned to the U.S. so convinced closer ties to the communist island would help everyday Cubans that they published a full-page ad in the Miami Herald titled "An Open Letter to Our Fellow Cuban-Americans," urging others to join their cause.

This letter was reminiscent of another letter published in the Washington Post in February 2015. But in this case, the letter held a very different view: "The New Cuba Policy: Breakthrough or Bailout?" criticized Obama's overtures to the island.

Both letters signed by prominent Cuban-Americans demonstrate how divided the Cuban exile community is on the issue. Though both groups want the same end result -- a free, democratic Cuba -- both disagree on which is the best path to take. Here are four well-known, successful Cuban-Americans and their takes on the issue.

MANNY MEDINA

Manny Medina, a tech pioneer who sold the company Terremark to Verizon for $1.4 billion and the owner of the private equity firm Medina Capital was one of the businessmen who went on the three-day trip to Havana. He returned thinking, "the way to effectuate change is to continue what we're doing," he told NBC News.

He wants to see entrepreneurs in Cuba have more freedom to hire people directly. Currently, workers must be hired through a state controlled agency, which retain a portion of the profits. Overall, he would like to see less state control. "This will ultimately make change come about more quickly, in my mind," Medina said, warning the change won't be overnight.

Manny Medina
Manny Medina is a Cuban-American businessman. / David M. Añón

Medina, who was born in the city of Matanzas in Cuba and fled the island when he was 13 years old, had visited his home country once before at the end of 1993. He said he had reached a time in his life where he had gained a certain amount of success and wanted to "find his roots." But in 1993, Cuba was in the midst of the "special period" when Soviet subsidies dried up, leading to extreme poverty and deprivation. Medina said the trip was one of "extreme highs and extreme lows." The longtime supporter of the U.S. embargo against Cuba left the island convinced the embargo needed to be lifted.

Feeling there was nothing he could do to influence Cubans, Medina never went back until last month. He had heard from people that things were beginning to change on the island and he wanted to see for himself. He met with tech entrepreneurs during his trip and said he was very impressed with their entrepreneurial spirit.

It's important to support those who are opening businesses in Cuba so they can move forward, according to Medina

He said he, nor the others on the trip have any vested interests on the island. "I have no interest in doing business in Cuba. What I'm doing is completely from a personal interest," he said.

JOE ARRIOLA

On the same December trip was Joe Arriola -- a self made millionaire and politician who is Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Jackson Health System, a nonprofit, major provider of health services in South Florida and the teaching facility for the University of Miami's medical school.

"Right now there are 500,000 Cubans who don't depend on the government for work. When we get 2 million who no longer need the government, they will create change," Arriola said.

Like Medina, Arriola was born in Cuba and came to the U.S. when he was 13 years old. He never returned to his homeland until September 2013. He said the embargo and disengagement with Cuba had began to bother him so he visited the island with his wife to see what the situation was like. He said it was during this trip he realized "there was enormous hunger for change in Cuba."

Image: Cuban American businessman Joe Arriola
Cuban American businessman Joe Arriola Jackson Health System

He said he was bothered by his own ignorance, and that of others, who support the U.S. embargo.

Arriola feels the embargo needs to be lifted and the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAC) amended. The CAC of 1996 allows Cubans to apply for residency one year after being paroled. This policy has become controversial in recent years as Cubans have arrived more for economic reasons than as political refugees.

By the same token, the communist government needs to become more receptive to small Cuban business owners by loosening restrictions and making it easier for people to become entrepreneurs. In the meantime, continuing to engage with Cuba is important, said Arriola.

He also wants to see the Cuban government pay more respect to human rights. "That's a must," he said.

Arriola is critical of those who support the embargo. He said, "you could be a hardliner, but you have to have a plan … That's what you do in business. What is their solution? What are they brining to the table?"

RELATED: Hillary Clinton to Call for Lifting of Cuba Embargo Friday

NESTOR CARBONELL

One of those involved with the Washington Post letter from 2015, Nestor Carbonell is a retired former VP of Pepsico who was with the company for 40 years. Carbonell, who has authored several books, says Obama's Cuba policy was poorly negotiated and it primarily benefits the Castro regime.

"We are breathing new life into the repressive system at a time when the Castro regime needs resources, funds, and in particular, financing," Carbonell said via phone from Connecticut.

Image: Nestor Carbonell
Cuban-American businessman Nestor Carbonell Courtesy of Nestor Carbonell

Carbonell was born in Cuba and fled the island when he was 24 years old. The closest he has been to returning was during the 1961 botched invasion at the Bay of Pigs, which he took part in. The boat he was traveling on was part of a second wave that was supposed to provide support when it was cancelled while very near the shores of Cuba.

After one year of rapprochement, Carbonell feels the situation is worse for Cubans, pointing out that repression against activists has intensified. The Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, an independent group based in Havana, reported earlier this month that political repression in Cuba increased in a sustained manner throughout 2015.

According to Carbonell, the recent spike in Cuban migrants is an indication that the situation has worsened. More than 43,000 Cubans entered the U.S. in fiscal year 2015, which is the largest amount in 20 years. The migrants are escaping poverty but many are reportedly concerned that the establishment of relations between the two countries could put an end to their privileged immigration treatment.

Carbonell argues the self-employed Cubans are not true owners of their businesses.

"They are mere licenses of the state, which subjects them to arbitrary regulations and exorbitant taxes, and bars them from incorporating, mortgaging, or transferring their mostly in-home struggling enterprises," he said. According to Carbonell, many Cubans have returned their licenses and opted for the black market.

Carbonell says the U.S. government needs to use the embargo as leverage to advance substantial democratic and political reforms on the island.

ALBERTO MESTRE

Alberto Mestre, a former president of General Mills in Venezuela, also signed the Washington Post letter, saying the timing of the Obama-Castro deal was "horrendous." The U.S. is providing money to the Cuban regime through tourism just as Venezuela's economic crisis has created a cash shortage for the government, he explained.

"What have the Castro brothers given us? Very little. What has the US given them?" Mestre asked.

He thinks if the U.S would have waited a little longer, "Cuba would have been obliged to change."

Mestre, whose surname is well-known in the Cuban exile community, was born in Cuba and comes from an entrepreneurial family, whose enterprises included car dealerships and a pharmaceutical company. But the family was best known for being media trailblazers. Mestre's father and uncle bought CMQ Radio in 1944 and launched what became a major television network in Cuba, CMQ TV, in the early 1950s.

Alberto Mestre
Photo of Alberto Mestre. Carmen Sesin

The Mestre family was wary of Fidel Castro, especially when he began naming communists as ministers. Mestre, who is a Yale graduate, was home for spring break in March of 1960 when all of his family's assets were confiscated. "My parents couldn't write a check," he said.

Mestre fled with his mother and sister to Miami. His father stayed behind and spoke to the nation that night, alerting the public of the rode Cuba was heading towards. Mestre still has a copy of his father's speech.

Though Mestre's wife and sister have returned to Cuba on more than one occasion, he has refused. As an outspoken person, he is afraid of getting into trouble in a country that still does not allow free speech. And like many Cubans of his generation, he prefers to remember the Cuba he left behind.

He feels the U.S. was not tough enough during the negotiations and has paved the way for Cuba's next president to remain in power for decades, like has happened in China and Vietnam. Raúl Castro, who is 84 years old, has said he will step down in 2018.

Mestre wants the Obama administration to be more demanding in negotiations with Castro's government, and press them on issues like releasing political prisoners and holding free elections.

"You cannot have a prosperous system in a communist government. Obama knows that," Mestre said.

The group of four businessmen want to see Cuba become a democracy but their diverse views on how to get there reflect those of the greater Cuban-American community.

Since Obama and Castro stunned the world announcing diplomatic relations would be reestablished there has been somewhat of a shift in attitude among Cuban-Americans. Traveling to Cuba and lifting the embargo -two topics that were once taboo among Cuban-Americans- are now more openly discussed.

Carbonell and Mestre, who would be considered "hard-liners" by many, are not calling for a reversal of Obama's Cuba policy, like Republican Presidential candidate Marco Rubio, who has said he would absolutely roll it back. The two former businessmen are calling for something less dramatic, which is to use the embargo as leverage to gain more concessions from the Cuban government. This is perhaps another indication that times have changed.

But some topics in the exile community remain delicate. The idea of establishing a Cuban consulate in Miami has stirred emotions. A recent county resolution urges the Obama administration to refrain from establishing a Cuban consulate because its presence "could inflame passions and create security risks." Miami's mayor, Thomas Regalado, recently said he would sue in federal court if the State Department grants Cuba a license to establish a consulate in his city. Miami is home to the largest amount of Cubans outside the island.

An opinion poll released in mid December by Bendixen & Amandi International indicates that for the first time, a majority of Cuban Americans around the country support ending the embargo. But it's only a slight majority, with 53 percent in favor and a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9. This demonstrates how polarized the exile community remains.

"I totally understand both sides. We all want the same thing: a totally free Cuba. But how do we make that change in a quick efficient way?" Medina said.

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