Cuban-American attorney George Fowler III has found success in New Orleans while supporting the people of his homeland
One of the many sobriquets for New Orleans is “the northernmost Caribbean city,” and the ties between New Orleans and Cuba used to be quite strong. The historical record shows vibrant trade, cultural bonds and familial connections across the Gulf of Mexico, but Fidel Castro’s taking of power in 1959 severed dealings between the Crescent City and the island nation. Not long after Castro’s ascent, a 9-year-old Cuban-born boy named George Fowler III fled to Louisiana with his family. Now, 50 years later, Fowler is the managing partner at the thriving law firm Fowler Rodriguez Valdes-Fauli (FRVF), located in the Central Business District. But he has never forgotten his Cuban heritage.
Fowler’s grandfather was a planter, a member of an English family of landowners who’d lived in Cuba since the 1700s. When on vacation in Connecticut, he met Fowler’s grandmother who was from New Orleans. They fell in love and settled back in Cuba and had four children, one of whom was Fowler’s father. Because of the threat of execution from the Castro regime, relations in New Orleans offered the family a safe haven.
“I’m constantly active in human rights issues in Cuba,” Fowler says, pointing out that he is the national vice president and general counsel for the Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF), a nonprofit organization supporting democratic ideals for Cuba. “We keep in close contact with the dissident movement there and help refugees when they come to the United States. We’re also working to prosecute Castro for crimes against humanity.”
Whenever an issue involving U.S.-Cuba relations arises, Fowler provides pro bono legal expertise to the Cuban-exile community through the CANF. During the high-profile Elian Gonzales situation in 1999 and 2000, Fowler offered legal strategies, served as a media spokesperson and negotiated with the Senate in an attempt to keep the boy from being sent back to Cuba.
“This is all part of my world,” Fowler says. “My other world is being a lawyer.”
The law firm Fowler founded in New Orleans in 1988 is respected for its expertise in maritime law. In a major case that just settled in January, Fowler represented the Royal Caribbean cruise line against Rolls-Royce for providing faulty propulsion systems to four of its ships. (Luxury cars were not involved in the case.) FRVF counts a number of other cruise and shipping lines as its clients, as well as companies in the offshore oil business and across other industries. The firm’s presence throughout the Gulf Coast and in international areas is another thing that makes it noteworthy. While its headquarters are in New Orleans, FRVF maintains offices in Houston, Mobile, Gulfport and Miami, and all the way in Bogotá, Colombia. Additionally, it maintains a group of affiliated law firms in cities ranging from Mexico City to São Paolo.
From these wide-ranging connections, Fowler seeks to bring business to New Orleans. Because the construction business in Florida has softened, but the city of New Orleans still needs rebuilding, Fowler has been working in particular to strengthen connections between the two places. “One thing our firm did after Katrina was we made presentations in Miami about opportunities in New Orleans,” he says. “We are still working on a number of ventures here with folks from south Florida. We’re involved helping them bid for contracts and navigate legal issues in doing business here.”
“I’m optimistic about New Orleans,” he adds, mentioning that his son used to work at the law firm, but left to pursue opportunities in the construction business. Meanwhile, his daughter is an associate with the firm, and his wife, Cristina Fowler, is active in many civic affairs. She’s involved in a number of New Orleans cultural organizations and is one of the Women of the Storm, the group of private citizens who traveled to Washington, D.C., after Katrina to personally invite politicians to view the destruction of New Orleans.
Cristina was born in Cuba as well. With her father jailed as a political prisoner after Castro took power, she and her three sisters escaped to the United States and ended up at an orphanage in Indiana. She later became a student at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
“A lot of people from Cuba went to LSU because it has strong agricultural programs,” Fowler explains. “If you were a Cuban in the sugar or tobacco business, you would go there to study.”
One day, Cristina happened upon George Fowler publicly denouncing Castro’s government to other students. “At LSU, there was the Free Speech Alley,” he says about a part of campus where anyone was allowed to get on his or her soapbox. “It was the days of hippies. Everyone had a cause. Mine was Cuba. And it still is.”
Fowler was only 21 when he married Cristina, who was 19. Now, they’re approaching 40 years of marriage.
“We find it important to be engaged citizens,” he says. “I’m on the executive board of the World Trade Center and on the board of the Metropolitan Crime Commission. I’m not generally involved in local politics, but I support people, whether Democrat or Republican, who I think are doing a good job for us. We’re both very grateful to this country.”