Caught! Cuban business associates thanked as "donors" at U.S. embassy party
When asked why American corporations, law and lobbying firms seeking to conduct Cuba related business were invitees and donors to the U.S. Embassy event, the State Department sidestepped the issue
July 7, 2023 6:10am
Updated: July 10, 2023 8:15am
The U.S. Embassy in Havana thanked a group of Cuban business associates as "donors" during a Fourth of July celebration held at the residence of Benjamin Ziff, the U.S. Ambassador to Cuba.
A photograph of a sign displayed at the party thanking U.S. firms engaging in island related business was published on Twitter by Cuban activist Norges Rodríguez.
Among the many firms thanked by U.S. embassy personnel were Cuban-American businessman Hugo Cancio, Crowley, Quevedo Law, XAEL Charters, and Pearl Merchandising & Distribution, Inc., among others.
Cancio, a lawyer from Quevedo Law firm, and Pearl Merchandising & Distribution, Inc., owned by Ariel Pereda, have all conducted island-based or related business, authorized by the Cuban regime for several years.
When asked by ADN America why American corporations, law and lobbying firms seeking to conduct Cuba related business were invitees and donors to the U.S. Embassy event, the State Department sidestepped the issue.
“All U.S. missions worldwide are able to conduct a process of solicitation for donation for the Fourth of July celebrations,” a State Department official told ADN on the condition of anonymity.
“At the U.S. Embassy in Havana, only U.S. citizens and companies donated to the 2023 Fourth of July celebrations.”
While the State Department dismissed the apparent conflict of American companies promoting themselves at a U.S. government event in a communist country designated as a state sponsor of terrorism, ADN revisited the background of some of these firms.
Who’s who on the donors' list
Quevedo Law Firm
Quevedo Law Firm has represented clients in licensing procedures before the Office of Foreign Assets Control Office (OFAC) and the Bureau of Industry and Services (BIS) for transactions involving blocked or sanctioned persons or countries, according to its website.
Anibal Quevedo Ponce is the only lawyer listed on the firm's website. Quevedo Ponce’s father, businessman and Angola war veteran Anibal Quevedo Rodríguez, has been described as a "frontman for the regime," by Cubanet, the oldest news site covering island-related issues.
In his LinkedIn profile, now deleted, Quevedo Ponce claimed to have been a financial assistant for former U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia's 2016 congressional campaign, boasting that he helped raise over $1 million.
Quevedo Ponce also appears alongside his father in the records of Supermarket 23 LLC in Florida.
That company was previously exposed as part of a commercial network with close ties to Cuban state-owned enterprises such as exporter Alcona S.A. (led by Loretta García, daughter of Gen. Guillermo García Frías) and other entities linked to the Ministry of Agriculture (MINAG), according to a 2022 ADN America investigation.
The e-commerce Supermarket 23 is the most popular affiliated site of Treew Inc., which distributes products from the Palco Business Group and other state-owned stores. Since 2008, Supermarket 23 has operated under the marketing funnel of Treew Inc.
Pearl Merchandising & Distribution, Inc.
Another donor at the party, Pearl Merchandising & Distribution, Inc., (PMD) is owned by Cuban-American Ariel Pereda. Mr. Pereda is listed as the Chair of a business council within Engage Cuba, a group that claimed credit for leading an "under-the-radar" $3 million national campaign to convince the Obama administration to "reform" U.S.-Cuba relations, according to the Washington Free Beacon.
PMD has the same address in Coral Gables as EC TRAVEL & SERVICES LLC, an inactive for-profit entity previously registered by Mr. Pereda and Ric Herrero, executive director of the Cuban Study Group (CSG), a well-known Washington-based non-profit organization advocating for the "normalization or relations" with Cuba.
CSG served as founding civil society member of the Engage Cuba coalition, which worked "to end the travel and trade embargo on Cuba," according to CSG's website and where Mr. Pereda appeared as a member.
A credit report suggests that the "EC" in EC Travel & Services LLC stands for "Engage Cuba."
The U.S. embassy’s list of donors also includes Akerman, a powerful law firm that also engages in government relations and lobbying. According to its website, Akerman “helps businesses navigate the complexities of the newly opened Cuba market.”
Aho’s profile at Akerman says he worked with the New York-based Council of the Americas, where he “spearheaded efforts to unite executives of select Fortune 500 companies with officials from the U.S. Departments of State, Commerce, Treasury, and the National Security Council for discussions on Cuba policy in the context of financial services, telecommunications, energy, pharmaceuticals, hospitality, and agriculture.”
Akerman’s Cuba Practice Chair, Gus Maxwell, is also a member of CSG. His law firm profile page says he represented Home Sharing in “establishing its successful launch in Cuba within four months after the normalization of relations between the two countries.” Although it is not clear which "Home Sharing" entity the site is referring to, Maxwell and Aho did accompany a small Airbnb team to the island in 2015.
The website also reports that Maxwell represented JetBlue Airlines, “in obtaining regulatory permission from Cuba to become the first U.S. carrier to make regularly scheduled flights to and from the island,” and Stonegate Bank, “the first U.S. commercial bank in establishing a correspondent banking relationship with a Cuban bank. This historic agreement was the first major business deal transacted after the United States and Cuba resumed diplomatic relations.”
Hugo Cancio, a reputed 'middleman' in U.S. Cuba business relations, also appears as a sponsor and was present at the party.
Mr. Cancio is one of the most well-known, prominent figures in the rapprochement between U.S. entrepreneurs and the Cuban dictatorship. The owner of OnCuba magazine part of Fuego Enterprises Inc., and the Katapulk e-commerce site, Cancio has received some criticism for selling overpriced products in Cuba.
Fuego Enterprises Inc., founded in 2004 and known until 2012 as Grupo para el Desarrollo de Negocios con Cuba, has a license on the island to market agricultural, artisanal, and consumer goods. It remains active in media and entertainment, telecommunications, travel, and real estate.
The largest shareholder for Fuego Enterprises Inc (US: FUGI) is Herzfeld Caribbean Basin Fund Inc., according to MarketWatch. Herzfeld Caribbean Basin Fund (CUBA), is a closed-end fund established in 1993 to engage in Cuba-related businesses.
In July 2021, the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment of Cuba (Mincex) authorized registration and a corresponding license to the company in the National Register of Foreign Commercial Representations, which is attached to the Chamber of Commerce of the island.
Crowley, one of the main shipping companies transporting goods to Cuba, also appears among the donors.
According to a 2020 report published by Radio y Television Martí, Crowley was sued under Title III of the Helms-Burton Act by Odette Blanco de Fernández, a Cuban-American member of a family whose properties were expropriated in 1960 by Fidel Castro after the triumph of the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
Xael Charters, Inc.’s president and founder, the late Xiomara Almaguer-Levy, who passed away in 2021 was a well-known advocate of dialogue with Fidel Castro and who actively worked in favor of the release of the Cuban spies arrested by the FBI as part of the Wasp Network, according to reports.
Almaguer-Levy received unusual condolences from high-ranking regime members including Minister of Exterior Bruno Rodriguez.
While the U.S. Embassy thanked these controversial donors for their Independence Day celebration, several opponents of the Cuban regime originally invited to the event were prevented from attending. This was the case for Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, and her husband, former political prisoner Ángel Moya, who was kept under surveillance throughout the day at their home.
"We did not leave because State Security and the police had besieged the headquarters of the Ladies in White, ready to arrest us when we went out," Moya said to ADN America on Wednesday.
The presence of some of these companies at the party organized by the U.S. diplomatic headquarters received harsh criticism on social media from prominent human rights activists.
"The freedom party sponsored by Supermarket23 and Katapulk," said Cuban historian and activist Salomé García Bacallao on Twitter.
This is not the first time that the U.S. Embassy in Havana has become the focus of criticism by Cuban activists due to its apparent closeness to companies commercially linked to the Cuban regime and regime-sponsored entities.
Last year's Fourth of July embassy party was also questioned.