Q. Was there one defining moment to lead you to where you are today or a series of events?
I guess it is a series of events that have shaped where I am today. This is something I could, honestly say, that it was never part of a plan or an overall plan or long-term plan. Sometimes things just happen for a reason. I think the moment that really defined my relationship with Cuba today was the moment when I did the movie Los Zafiros - movie that I produced and owned based on my father’s story. I produced that film and presented it in Cuba at The Havana International Film Festival. I felt a little guilty because I presented the film in Cuba before I presented it to the community I lived in, the community where my daughters were born; Miami. Until the time of the movie, believe it or not, I was totally unaware that they were different political organizations in Miami that were trying to overthrow the Castro regime and more importantly, I was not aware that there was so much resentment in this community towards the Cuban government or anything that had anything to do with Cuba. So I was extremely naive and I decided to present the movie in Miami and rented Miami's most prestigious venue to present the film. I gave several interviews to the local media -Miami Herald- local television stations etc. I organized a trip of the cast of the film to come to Miami. It was the first time such an event had been organized. Two contradictory things happened at the same time: First, there was a tremendous amount of interest in the Cuban culture because all 1500 tickets sold out in 24 hours and the second surprising thing was that 5000 people gathered outside the venue to protest!
So there was interest and buzz…
Yes. The interest was that we were sold out but I was not expecting a large gathering of people outside protesting and quite aggressively towards me and my intention to present the film, the cast and the people who had purchased tickets. At the time I lived on the other side of Miami -Miami Lakes. I did not watch local television and I had no idea that there was so much resentment and that there were political organizations that were engaged in all kinds of activities to overthrow the Castro regime and opposed anyone in the city that had a different view from theirs. No one before has asked me or thinking about a specific moment I that shaped my destiny ..I picked this moment. That is the day that I decided that I was going to focus 100% on promoting Cuban music and Cuban culture in this community - not because 1500 people purchased the tickets to go see the film but rather because my mother a few years earlier had made a decision - made the ultimate decision: to cross the Florida Straits to bring me and my sister to the United States to give us better life; because she thought we had no future in Cuba. In Cuba, I was reprimanded and thrown out of school for making a joke about Fidel Castro and here I was in the land of the free, the home of the brave, the ultimate venue for democracy and there were a ton of people trying to prevent me from doing something that did not hurt them at all and that had nothing to do with the Castro Brothers. I was just promoting Cuban music, Cuban culture. I promised myself that I was not going to allow anyone ever again to stop me from doing whatever I needed to do to fulfill my dreams. For me, there was no other place to go. I lived here. I was not going to move to London or tell my mother I cannot leave here anymore because 5,000 people were calling me all kind of names. So that particular moment was an extremely important moment in my life in determining what I was to do with my life. It also filled me with a tremendous amount of determination. Since then there have been many other moments that have contributed and added to that determination and persistence. The fact that I I thought that I was doing the right thing has enabled me to maintain the focus for the last 25 years
In the process, without noticing and without wanting to be, I became a political activist for the cause of and in favor of normalization of relations between my adopted country and my native country. From that moment, my life changed. A lot of people singled me out for criticism for different reasons. I had to go out there and explain the reasons why I thought what I was doing was the right thing to do and in the process, I became a political activist. I became an extremely controversial person in my community.
I evaded who is who in this community for many years - some of the people I evaded throughout the years - my political adversaries – are now on the same side as I am. They have gone to Cuba. They have acknowledged that they were wrong ... maybe they were not wrong, but their approach was wrong. Now they have re-encountered themselves with their country of origin, their culture, their music, their family and they love going to Cuba. So it was a lot easier to do after Dec, 17, 2014. It was very difficult to do all this prior to that.
Q. For the people against you; how extreme did it get? Did you get death threats?
Not only did I get death threats but they threw Molotov cocktails. At one of the venues where I was doing a concert, they exploded a car. They put a bomb into a car which was similar to my car. They did it by mistake; they thought it was my car.There were real terrorist's acts back then. You could find all this online. It is all out there. One morning we arrived at a concert early to do a sound check and found all media crews at the venue because they had thrown a Molotov to blow the door off the night before. A year later I am about to do a concert with a Cuban artist and as I read the paper - 9 o'clock in the morning – the newspaper had a story that a car had exploded - a beige Mercedes Benz. I told my wife …look at that …I have a car similar to that. My wife said, “Did you read the name of the corporation where they blew the car?" It is called HMC something. My company's name was HMC Productions. She said maybe that was for you and I am like .."you think???" So she says maybe you should call the police. I was about to when the phone rang and it was alcohol, forearms, and some other agency and said that “we would like to speak to you.." So I said; “what about?” I said I just read in the paper about the car being blown up and they said we would like to speak to you about that. So after their investigations, they concluded that it was meant for me. That made me more determined....
Q.That didn't scare you? That gave you more determination? How did your wife feel?
My entire family was extremely concerned and my daughters were harassed at school and were told your father is a communist, he is this and that, but I knew in my heart that I was doing the right thing. I was only promoting human music, human culture. I was not going on TV and defending the Cuban government, I was defending my right to do what I was doing. I was, in many ways, using my common sense to deactivate some of the rhetoric and absolute ideas and methods that these people had. They were trying to overthrow something…In many ways it was ridiculously justifiable because there were hard feelings and the hurt our community had was genuine; however, the way they were manifesting this hatred or hard feelings was to support actions to overthrow a regime and further divide us ... I came to the conclusion that this made no sense.
Q.You remained optimistic throughout...?
I did. You know the argument was absurd both ways - on the other side of Florida Straits, in Cuba, they were calling us names Marielito, la Mafia de Miami, all kinds of stuff. I thought it was counterproductive...kind of revolutionary anti-Cuban. I have yet to meet a Cuban who doesn't love his country. I know a lot of Cubans who hate their country's government and their leaders but I've never met a single Cuban who hates his country. I just haven't. I know some people say how about this person he's anti-Cuba...I say. No, he is extremely Cuban; he is just anti-Cuban government...so that was the difference. So neither party wanted to listen to the other. They were in a comfort zone living in an environment of confrontation. They didn't want any white flags in the middle or want anyone mediating or coming up with a different approach. I have to say that on the other side of Florida straits there were more receptive to my way of thinking... I went out there and exposed myself to local and national TV to explain my points of view because at the time I was naive enough to think these people were like me. Look at it this way, for the first time in Miami they had a different voice. There were a lot of people who thought the same way I did as we found out after Dec 17, 2014, but those were silent. Those were people who felt the same way I felt but they were silent. They would not dare to come out openly and say it because it had repercussions. In my case, it was bombed and whatever and prior to me people had been killed for expressing their opinion and saying that Cuban embargo was wrong and they should engage in dialogue. There are people who got killed and people who were thrown out of their jobs because the factory they worked in was owned by a Cuban exile.
For example, the business executive of AT&T was a Miami Cuban whose father was arrested and jailed for 30 years so he was not going to allow anyone in his team to think different...so things like that happened in this community for many years. In my case, I became self-employed at a very early age - 24/25 and I didn’t have to stay quiet at a factory or car dealerships in Miami Lakes or restaurant in Miami Beach or a finance office in Coral Gables. So I was determined to say what I had to say. I took every opportunity I got to appear on TV and confront and debate someone on this issue. As I got more opposition from the City and county officials, I became more defiant. Looking back if you ask me whether it was all worth it?
My answer is yes. If you ask ..looking back if you had thought more deeply, would you have done it? I would say, No , because in a sense you had to be extremely determined and extremely naive to do what I did in this community years back. I am not that naive anymore but I am still determined, today I can think more deeply and I would have analyzed the whole situation differently. Back then I was just a rebel in this community for many reasons. So all of this combined got me to where I am today. I am today an x-ray of 25 years of engagement in this community.
Q.What is the most important qualities to achieve your goals; persistence, timing or luck?
I think it is determination - persistence and determination and passion. You have to have an overdose of passion. You know I was so passionate that it blinded me in many ways. After my success a lot of people these days say: “ You did it well. You planned this very well. Look at you, you have done extremely well with your business dealings with Cuba.” In reality, I did not plan this. Never did I think that I would get to the position that I am in today. It was just pure determination and passion and the rest comes after. My fellow Cubans in Miami were waiting for 30 some years for Castro government to fall. I did not plan a specific goal. I just did what I thought was right. I was passionate about it and I pursued it. That's it. So..Determination and Passion are key to achieve anything in life. At this point in life, I'm 53 years old, I do not do anything that I'm not passionate about.
Q. How did you navigate the bureaucracy of government to accomplish your goals? Were there any skills you used to help you?
I wrote an article about two months ago when Donald Trump became President of the United States. I said, many years ago, I had read “The art of the deal” , his book. I don't think after reading that book I learned any new skills except it confirmed my experience that ‘The Art of the Deal” boils down to your ability to compromise and solve problems. In the case of navigating or overcoming the difficulties of doing business in the communist country in transition, it is nothing more than presenting people with facts and obviously being persistent in making your case. I always say that in order to business in Cuba you need 3 PPP - Passion, Perseverance, and Persistence.Those are the key things to do business in my country of origin. If you don't have these then you might as well walk away and enjoy life by the beautiful beach and forget about the business. It sounds corny: but my goal is to see the country succeed first and foremost. I don't need to be there every week. I'm in the position today, thank God, that I can live anywhere in the world. I do not need to be in Cuba. But I still to travel to Cuba every week because I want the country to succeed. There have been times when I said to myself: what am I doing here? Why am I going back and forth and facing all this nonsense? Sometimes it is a lot of nonsense and a lot of excuses.
At the end what motivates me is the fact that I want to see that country succeed. I want to see that the Cuban people have a better opportunity and a better future. I want to be able to someday say: I tried and gave my best. With that motivation I am out there almost every week; I continue confronting people with obsolete ideas, with old mental state of mind that makes no sense. My position on the other side of the table is not to embarrass or to tell him I am smarter than them. My position is to say: have you looked into the possibility that what you're telling me is incorrect or this particular measure or rule or regulation is obsolete - maybe it was written down in 1962 because it had relevance back then and today it is surely irrelevant. It does not apply. Instead of not doing things why don’t we ask us: why not? Who is preventing us from doing what we want and who is being hurt? I go there not thinking about the bottom line I go there with the tremendous powerful combination of passion, determination and the desire to see both sides benefit in the process. For example, consider if I was to go to Oklahoma or Mississippi, by the way, I have never been to Oklahoma; anyway, if I'm taking a flight at six in the morning just to do business and I fight for the business because it is good for me and my shareholders that makes sense is one way of working . Now consider if I go to Oklahoma and I am from Oklahoma and Oklahoma is going through a rough time and I was born there and I have roots there;
I love Oklahoma and I bring business to Oklahoma that matter to Oklahomans ; that powerful combination, that excitement, that passion will be reflected in what I do and it just comes out of you automatically! So that is what I bring with me when I come to Cuba. A tremendous amount of desire to make things happen, for many reasons, other than purely financial. Everything I try to do in Cuba, I try to do where everyone benefits. Many times a lot of folks come to me and say you're not going to be able to do this and it's impossible, you are not going to be able to do that etc. Instead of getting frustrated, I often feel sorry for them, because they are defending something which is not sustainable. I go there, always, with a state of mind that I am going to contribute and I am not going to lose anything if they say no; because at the end of the day, I'm always going to come back to Miami and enjoy Sunday with my daughters and smoke the same Cuban cigars that I smoke there, drink the same rum . Perhaps is not going to be on a balcony in Havana apartment but it is going to be in my backyard in Miami and I'm still going to do the same thing. This is not going to hurt me in any way or form so I continue going back. I love the country, its people and because what I'm doing is, I believe, the right thing to do. I have built a lot of friendships and relationships throughout the years. Those friends and relationships are out there in key positions. They know that when I sit in front of them what they see is what they get. There is no hidden agenda, there is no mistrust, there is straightforwardness and there is a track record of being there for the last 25 years. I'm not someone that just came out of nowhere on December 17th!
There is a tremendous amount of hope in Cuba. Don't get me wrong, there are times when you do get frustrated and lose hope but I have seen firsthand the transformation of the country. I came from a country where saying a joke about Fidel Castro got you kicked out of school; where listening to The Beatles was considered bad. The country has gone through a special time when everyone was asked to go into the trenches and stay there and resist to a country where economic reform was necessary and they pushed private entrepreneurship and then they rolled it all back...so I have seen all those different cycles. So I am at a stage now, under Raul Castro’s leadership that I see the potential of that country turning into a newer country - newer and better country and I want to be a part of it.
Q. That is exciting. Did you work directly with the Obama administration to end the embargo?
I have worked with many administrations prior to Barack Obama. I worked with Bush senior administration, I worked with Clinton administration, I have lobbied the hallways of Congress for many many years. This is an ongoing thing that I've been doing for quite a long time.
How do you think this is going to change with the new President of USA?
Obviously, this particular Administration is so unpredictable; but my common sense tells me that there is not going to be any major rollback of President Obama's policy towards Cuba. My common sense tells me if the Cubans don't react adversely to this President’s unprecedented and unpredictable way of governing and if the Cubans continue to portray their patience that they showed when President Trump offended a lot of Cuban people when Fidel Castro died by his comments then; the progress will continue. At the time , the Cubans remained silent and patient and did not fall into the trap of responding angrily as they used to - we Cubans are Latinos after all and don’t tolerate anyone calling us out! In this instance the Cubans remained calm and focused and that to me was a great sign of maturity and restraint by President Raul Castro. At the beginning I was more afraid of Cuba's reaction to Donald Trump than Donald Trump himself, but I'm not concerned about that anymore. As far as rolling back, a lot has been accomplished.
I have had the opportunity of meeting people from US Treasury Department, State Department and the Commerce Department .They all feel that this new policy towards Cuba implemented by President Barack Obama has worked and opened the door for new opportunities for engagement versus noncommunications/ hostile/ Cold War status of the past .I'm confident that when Mr. Trump reviews his Cuba policy, the right advice will e given to him. He needs to take into consideration that in a few months, in approximately 8 months there will be a new President in Cuba.
Q. Tell me more...
I don't know right now. I do not speak on the behalf of the Cuban people. I'm going to speak on behalf of myself. I am extremely optimistic. I see for the first time in many years I see signs of Cuba that is in the process of evolution. I see every day the exercise of democracy at its best. I remember a time when a Cuban official makes just a single comment about an individual and that individual next day would be cutting sugar cane somewhere ...today the same level Cuban official will make a comment and it will be considered just an opinion. For example, one official may criticize an individual or action and another official may come and say I disagree. So, for the first time, I see a debate between all the ranks of the Cuban government. I see that no one has the absolute power to change course. I see engagement at all levels of the Cuban government. I saw a public debate within the top of the Cuban government where a particular sector came out and objected to President Obama's ' visit and claimed that it was a Trojan horse to upset the status quo. The next day, I saw an article in the newspaper totally disagreeing with that particular notion or idea or a statement made by Cuban official/Diplomat somewhere else praising the decision of Obama's visit and continuing to move forward with the normalization process. So for the first time in my life, I don't see everyone agreeing on the same issues and the same things. I see people expressing their opinion in different ways which means to me that that is progress. I don't see the leader of the country saying that this is where the country needs and has to go and everybody saying yes sir, yes sir! I see people saying I disagree and saying I think we should go a different way. I see somebody else saying why? Explain to me why? I even see the President of Cuba saying we need to speak up and express our opinions. So, the most important thing, I'm saying, in Cuba today is the transformation of the Cuban Society and the change in the hearts and minds of the people - that for the first time in many years they feel they are being part of the process of what is taking place today. They feel that their opinion matters. They are expressing themselves. Now I'm not going to say that is everywhere, I'm not going to say that I'm 100 % happy where we are today. I'm not going to say that there is not some extremist somewhere punishing somebody for expressing their opinion; what I'm going to tell you is that in my personal opinion such an act would be a reaction of that particular individual - this extremist individual - is not a consensus behavior of the government. I'm also not going to justify the government when they do wrong things every day but what I'm saying is that for the first time in many many years I see a country that is moving forward rather than standing still. I see people expressing themselves. Hopefully, this transforms Cuba and in a few years, we become a totally different country.
H: Look at me as an example: I’m a Cuban-American. I'm “Marielitos”. I left Cuba when I was 16 years old. I was blacklisted from the school in Cuba. I have an office in Havana. I run an American news media bureau, I have investments in Cuba in sectors that are currently allowed under United States embargo rules and regulations and so forth and so on. I represent the third largest cruise ship in the world- Norwegian Cruise Lines. I am there every week or helping run their operations along with running my business because of my business benefits from their business. A few years back members of the Cuban government were pointing fingers at Miami and saying La Mafia de Miami. I think things have changed since then. Believe me, I have to confront resistance within Cuba from people that don't like the fact that I'm there and that I've been able to accomplish what I have accomplished as a company, as an individual. I see that as a display of human misery/ jealousy.
This exists everywhere in the world. In some cases resistance to me is a justifiable because the argument goes ..." hey look it is ok for Mr. Cancio to come back after 37 years living abroad and it's okay that you have offered him the opportunity to established businesses and be successful; as a matter of fact, I am happy because he is creating jobs for the Cubans and he is a Cuban and therefore has the right to return. It makes me feel proud of my country that we were able to accept Mr. Cancio back.
However what about me? I stayed. I believed and I gave my hundred percent to my government. Mr. Cancio has been able to achieve success because he is not from here. So you tell me what is going to happen with me and what opportunities will I have from you - my government, Until I know this, I'm resisting change. So you see that is a valid argument and I would not disagree with that. I can only tell such an individual that I agree with him.At the same time, he is right when he says that I have every right to be in Cuba as a Cuban and I'm sorry that he has no homegrown opportunities but at least the country is moving forward. The leaders in Cuba are to debating how to reconcile all these differences and all these discrepancies and so forth and so on. My concern is that they are thinking way too much and the discussion is taking too long. Many times I'm told by some Cuban officials friends of mine- that they are debating and people are coming from all parts of the country to express their opinions.
They say: “We know what needs to be done but we have to reconcile our differences with the Cuban diaspora. We know you were an important part of this society and need to have some participation. We know we need to open up the private entrepreneurship and allow small and medium-sized businesses to flourish.We know this but what you do not understand, Hugo is that this is a debate/discussion " My response is that: I understand the debate. I'm good at debating. I do it every time I'm here with you guys, but let us look at history; Fidel did not debate for ever before he decided to start a revolution. It didn’t take him years. He was determined. He debated and convinced 80 heads and decided to overthrow a regime with 50,000 soldiers supported by the USA. If I had debated him, I would have said you are crazy and told him that we are going to die!
There was no GPS, no Google Maps but they just knew where they needed to go and were determined. They were willing to risk it all for their cause. In the same way founding fathers of my adopted country debated for years , in Philadelphia: about how to best overthrow or reconcile differences with the British Crown.The leaders of the 13 colonies especially in the south were really concerned because they were 100% dependent on the crown. They did not know how to win against the British army and they did not even know how to build a nation if they won.
They did not know whether they will be able to reconcile their differences between themselves and build a country. They had one thing in common- they could not continue with the status quo. They needed to change that and at one point they put all their emotions in that Declaration of Independence and risked it all. 200 years later they are the most powerful country in the world. So at some point you have to stop debating and make a decision and say this is what needs to be done and that's it, just do it, like the Nike commercial - Just do it.Right?
Q. What worries you the most about Cuba?
That's a good question. I'm not as concerned as I used to be. I am extremely upbeat and optimistic. There are ups and downs and there are times when I get really frustrated but I trust the Cuban people. Cuba's biggest assets are not whether there is granite or oil in Cuba or Cigars or rum or their wonderful weather or great beaches or any other natural resources; Cuba's biggest resource is 11.2 million people who are determined to rebuild the country and move forward in the direction that brings financial stability for the country, their families and so forth. I have no fear other than the fear that the Cuban people will not understand that after a long time they have the opportunity to take the country in a new direction in a good and positive way. I am interested in how everyday Cubans can benefit from this ongoing transformation. So if I was to say one thing I am afraid of is that the Cuban people will not understand that this country is in the process of evolution and that they will try to maintain status quo whereby they want to stay in their comfort zone where they want to work with the state and expect the state to support them in every way. Cuba is transforming itself into a new country. I encourage the Cubans to maintain and preserve some of those social Services for which they fought for so many years - free education, free Health Service, taking care of the elderly, Cuba being a cultural powerhouse etc. All these are extremely important but as important as that is, it is unsustainable unless they take advantage of this current opportunity. That is my only concern.I'm not concerned about the rollback of Obama measures. I don't think there's going to be a major rollback. I think this is it. So that change of mentality, change in the hearts and minds of the Cuban people to accept the reality of the need to be part of a world that is in constant movement and transformation is most important, What will hold us back is the state of mind that we are an island in the Caribbean and can dictate our own pace. We do not have to go at the world pace and can dictate our own pace but we do need to move. Status quo is not an option. The alternative is that we will be left behind.
Q. What is the best place to get a cocktail in Havana?
Q. Best Coffee place?
H: My apartment in Havana. My espresso maker in my apartment!! hahaha. just joking. I would say the 20th floor of the Meliá Cohiba Hotel (http://hotelcohiba.com-habana.com/ ) . I walk there every morning and have coffee. Honestly, it is great coffee. I also enjoy the coffee at Rio Mar a privately owned paladar in Miramar. There are also few places which are government owned that that have kept tradition and are excellent. For example, if you ask me the best place to eat black beans in Cuba, I would say El Aljibe restaurant.
Q. What is the best restaurant?
H: There are a lot of amazing restaurants in Cuba. All of them try to be extremely creative and come up with this fusion based on Cuban food and all kinds of other influences. If I am to stick to the Cuban classes (rice, chicken, black beans and pork ). I want to stick to El Aljibe restaurant. For me, that's the best place to have lunch or dinner in Cuba - genuine Cuban food with Cuban feel and a great environment. Also, this may be the only place that allows you to smoke a cigar at the table after lunch or dinner - you don't have to walk outside to the patio or go up to the terrace.
Q. Where would you recommend a place to stay?
The best place to stay in Havana I would say encourage people to stay in one of the many beautiful casa particulars around Havana. It is one of the most genuine ways to experience Havana. I would also recommend – Meliá Cohiba (http://hotelcohiba.com-habana.com/). The best place to visit and see for yourself that Cuba is a country in transition is the offices of OnCuba!
Q. How do you travel for business and pleasure?
H: Well, I'm going, to be honest. I have a beautiful apartment in Havana. You were at my office on the 9th floor. In that building, there are 2 apartments per floor. You were in one apartment where my office is and down the corridor is another apartment which is my home in Havana. When I go to Cuba for business; after 5 PM, I forget about business and a find a nice quiet spot - whether it is the Terrace or balcony of my apartment or the rooftop of the Cocinero (next to Fabrica de Arte) and end my day with a cigar and a glass of Santiago rum 11 years old.
That is how I end my day - in Miami and in Havana. I'll share with you another secret. Remember I told you that when I return to Miami from Cuba regardless of whether I had a successful trip or not, I always have a cigar and rum on my return; Well, let me tell you that the rum and cigar in Miami never taste as good as in Havana -Never! It is the same cigar and same rum but it somehow always tastes better in Havana.
D: Something about the environment?
It is the environment, it is the temperature, it is the weather, it is the noise, it is the smell, and it is everything combined! The first concert I produced in Miami 25 years ago, I announced that tonight you are going to hear real Cuban music! In the audience, there were some very important Cuban musicians - some of them extremely wealthy and successful. They became rich and famous by producing and promoting Cuban music. I said genuine Cuban music from Cuba is different when it's done in the “barrios” in Havana compared to a private island in Miami Beach because one needs to absorb what's going on in your surroundings in order to be creative and release all your creative forces. This cannot be achieved in the comfort of a private yacht on Miami Beach or a beautiful mansion. You are never going to get that rhythm, that groove, that feeling for that particular piece. I guess it is the same thing when you smoke a cigar or drink a glass of rum in Miami rather than in Havana!
Continued: After this interview was conducted new sanctions replied President Obama's opening of Havana. Hugo wrote a few words in response.
Often times it is frustrating and hurtful to see how the most powerful country in the world continues its historical attempt to force Cuba into submission. We ( I am now speaking as a Cuban) may not have the best system of Government, nor the best approach to tackle internal economic and political challenges that affect all governments and societies. But, it seems to me this is an internal matter that requires zero American interference. It is true that this White House has the right to decide which government they do business with, no doubt, and I'm sure Cubans understand and accept this. However, I do continue to wonder why Cuba, why does this little island in the Caribbean that represents no true threat to American interest and national security is still exposed to antiquated policies that harm.