“Today I’m going to probably offend a lot of people, so you’re going to know where I’m coming from.”
So begins my conversation with Ralph Fernandez. A Tampa criminal defense and litigation attorney who for over three decades has been the loudest hardliner on the Cuban regime in Tampa, and a tireless legal defender of men accused of trying to bring down the Castro regime (some by violent means), he’s also a passionate anti-war Democrat who denounces most of the Republicans running for president.
We’re sitting across from each other at Arco-Iris, the West Tampa Cuban restaurant on Columbus Drive. Fernandez is a regular here; when he enters, he makes a beeline to the proprietor behind the register, chatting her up in Spanish. Our meeting was initiated by Fernandez, who after seeing his name in recent CL stories about Cuba thought it was high time for a one-on-one.
Friends maintain that he’s definitely mellowed in recent years, but there’s little evidence of that in our 75-minute lunch date. Immediately after we order, he’s recounting a story from a decade or so back involving his pro bono efforts to save the Cuban Club in Ybor City from being foreclosed upon. He says that, despite his generous efforts, he was greeted with hostility at a later board meeting. The greatest indignity of all — someone asked him who he was.
“I said basically, none of you would be sitting your asses in this room if it wasn’t because of me. So I’m the guy who saved the club.” He alludes to one of those board members, USF administrator Maura Barrios, and her involvement at the time with Cuba Vive, a group that frequently opposed Fernandez and helped send medicine and other supplies to Cuba. “I don’t have any respect for her either,” he adds as an aside.
Fernandez’s zealous anti-Fidel Castro passions have long made him controversial. Born in Cuba, he moved with his family to Tampa as an 8-year-old in 1961. He was working as a prosecutor for Hillsborough County in 1980 when the trajectory of his life and career turned dramatically. That was the year that Castro proclaimed that any Cuban who wished to emigrate to the United States could board a boat at the port of Mariel. During the ensuing months, 125,000 Cubans fled to the Sunshine State and approximately 1,700 exiles were imprisoned in Florida jails because of criminal records or mental problems. That’s when Fernandez got busy and began defending some of them. It was then that he says he heard stories of executions in Cuba by firing squad. It changed his outlook, and since that time he has defended many Cubans (all pro bono) accused of trying to bring down the Castro regime — some of whom even he admits could be easily classified as terrorists.
One would be José Dionisio Suárez Esquival, who was convicted of placing a bomb underneath a car driven by Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and his assistant, Ronni Moffitt, a 25-year-old American woman, in September of 1976 in Washington D.C. The explosion killed both passengers.
Fernandez has also defended Jose Basulto, the founder and head of Brothers to The Rescue, a group whose plane was shot down by the Cuban government for allegedly violating the country’s air space in 1996.
Last year Fernandez testified in El Paso, Texas on behalf of former CIA agent Luis Posada Carilles, who was ultimately acquitted on charges of perjury, obstruction of justice and immigration fraud. Carilles is still wanted in Venezuela, as he stands accused of organizing the most serious terrorist attack ever in Latin America: the 1976 bombing of the Cubana de Aviación passenger airliner that killed 73 people.
Fernandez has rubbed some folks the wrong way by boasting about his working relationship with the FBI. But he says his friends in the intelligence community weren’t pleased that he was on the witness stand defending Carilles, whose career is littered with violence. He says after he came off the witness stand in El Paso, one of the government prosecutors said, “There goes our case.”
Fernandez is unrepentant.
“I said this is a fucking joke, to get him on some immigration shit… This guy has done more for America, than any Americans, whether you like it or not…”
Unlike most in the Cuban exile community, Ralph Fernandez is an extremely proud member of the Democratic Party. He has contributed generously to local and national candidates and members of Congress.
Former Tampa area Congressman Jim Davis has known Fernandez since both were youths in Tampa. After he was elected to Congress in 1996, Davis confronted Cuba as public policy for the first time in his public life, and reached out to his lifelong friend.
“I knew it was important to understand and respect the opinion of someone who I’ve always respected and trusted,” Davis says. He adds that Fernandez is a “very talented guy with a lot of integrity,” before hastening to say that he hasn’t always agreed with him on some issues, such as when President Bush tightened restrictions on travel and on private remittances to Cuba.