Lobbyist never gave up on Cuba trip
By DAVID KARP, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- About four years ago, Dr. Anthony Kirkpatrick, an anesthesiology professor at the University of South Florida, went to see Mayor Dick Greco about making a humanitarian trip to Cuba.
Kirkpatrick said the mayor told him to check with Ralph Fernandez, the Cuban-American attorney known for his work on anti-Castro causes.
But Fernandez would not meet with Kirkpatrick, and Greco never made the trip.
Then last week, without the blessing of Fernandez or Tampa's Cuban-American community, Greco met with Cuban president Fidel Castro in Havana.
The man who got him to go was Albert Fox Jr., a Jefferson High School graduate who was one of the few Americans invited by Castro to attend Elian Gonzalez's birthday party.
The trip ended a three-year campaign to get a high-level Tampa official to visit the Cuban leader.
"It's a huge symbolic message," said Fox, 58, who pulled off the visit through persistence, good timing and connections in Cuba's Communist government.
Fox, who lives in suburban Maryland, describes himself as a small businessman and lobbyist. He has worked in Washington and Havana for three years to end the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
His Washington-based Alliance for Responsible Cuban Policy Foundation has a former U.S. senator, three former members of the U.S. House of Representatives and a former U.S. Secretary of Commerce on its board.
Fox has traveled extensively in Cuba and has brought U.S. public officials to the island many times. He has met with Castro about eight times, he said.
His group gets funding from contributors, but until this year hadn't taken in more than $25,000. Last week's trip was funded by the alliance's budget, in addition to $25,000 from a Washington foundation.
Fernandez, the anti-Castro activist, describes Fox and his organization as an "agent of influence" of the Cuban government -- something Fox adamantly denies.
"That is absolutely not true," Fox said. "The FBI has checked me out, and they didn't find anything. I am an American first; and when I do something un-American, I want someone to point it out to me."
Born and raised in Tampa, Fox wasn't politically active in the Cuban community as a youngster. He graduated from Jefferson High, got a bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland, then worked on Capitol Hill.
He was an aide to the late U.S. Rep. Bill Chappell, a Democrat from Ormond Beach, and former U.S. Sen. Mike Mansfield, the Montana Democrat who served as Senate majority leader.
From 1984 to 1991, Fox, then a lobbyist, represented the apartheid South African government as it tried to get the U.S. government to lift economic sanctions.
Many of Washington's best-known lobbying firms wouldn't take the assignment, Fox said.
"I struggled with it for about 30 days," Fox said. "I thought it would be a fascinating opportunity to be a part of history."
Though he represented the South African government, Fox said he used his position to help end the apartheid system, which denied black citizens basic human rights.
He said he helped negotiate the release of detained child activists in South Africa in 1987. In 1991, he said he arranged a meeting between 67 U.S. senators and the then-South African president to promote the creation of a democratic government.
In 1990, Fox was appointed a commissioner to the Martin Luther King Federal Holiday Commission -- a coup for a lobbyist who had represented the South African government.
"I was a big admirer of Dr. King," Fox said.
Three years ago, he wanted to take his mother back to her Cuban homeland to celebrate her 80th birthday. But the State Department denied them permission.
When that happened, Fox thought: "There is something wrong with this."
He decided to contact a lobbying group working to end travel and trade restrictions to Cuba. But there were no such groups.
"I was stunned," Fox said.
So Fox, who is married and has four children, founded and became president of the alliance.
Since then, Fox said he has worked closely with U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake, a freshman Republican from Arizona who introduced legislation to remove travel restrictions.
In July, the House of Representatives voted 262-167 to end travel restrictions to Cuba. President George W. Bush has promised to veto the bill if it is passed by the Senate.
Fox took Flake on a trip to Cuba, though Flake did not meet Castro. Fox said he also helped organize the Cuba Working Group, a coalition of Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Meanwhile, he nibbled away on organizing a trip of Tampa officials to Havana.
It wasn't easy. At one point, officials from TECO Energy joined the Alliance's board, only to resign quickly after protests from anti-Castro groups and others. Fox also worked for months to persuade the mayor to go.
"I thought I was going to get some county commissioner to go or something," Fox said.
On Friday, after Greco returned from his meeting with Castro and gave an emotional account of life on the island, friends and relatives called Fox to express pride in his accomplishment.
He had gotten Tampa's mayor to see a world shut out to him and then explain his experience to an entire city. Fox was impressed by how well Greco handled himself one-on-one with Castro.
"That was the fascinating part, to see these two guys mentally fencing with each other," Fox said.
After the five hour, 40 minute meeting, Castro signed some mementos for delegates, including Greco. As the group got into an elevator at the government building on Revolutionary Plaza, Castro saluted them.
"To see someone like Fidel Castro, erect like a soldier, salute us," Fox said, "that says it all."
-- David Karp can be reached at (813) 226-3376 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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