Rethinking anti-Castro tactics

SUN JOURNAL

Cuba: A Miami businessman's turn toward pragmatism puts the Cuban American National Foundation in an uproar.

September 01, 2001|By John Thor-Dahlburg | John Thor-Dahlburg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MIAMI - When the 8-year-old son of Jorge Mas Santos heard his father described in a recent radio broadcast, there was one term he didn't understand. So he asked his father.

"The word," recalls Mas Santos with a thin smile, "was dictator."

With Mas Santos at its eye, a hurricane is raging in Miami's Cuban-American community over the correct strategy and tactics for opposing Cuban strongman Fidel Castro and returning democracy to the island.

In the last year, Mas Santos, 38, a Miami Beach-born businessman who chairs the powerful Cuban American National Foundation, has quietly steered the influential political lobbying group on a new, more pragmatic tack and away from the virulent right-wing policies that had become synonymous with Cuban-American politics.

At the same time, the chairman and his allies in the foundation leadership are trying to apply the bitter lessons learned from the Elian Gonzalez affair last year. Not only did Cuban-American activists fail to prevent the return of the 6-year-old boy to Cuba with his father, a humiliating political Waterloo for the exiles, but they also came off looking like hysterical fanatics to many other Americans.

Hence Mas Santos' support for staging the Latin Grammy awards in Miami and other changes in policy that tend to mute what might have seemed to non-Cubans like unreasonable extremism, says Dario Moreno, professor of political science at Florida International University.

"They want to reach out to mainstream America. And they can't if they look silly or intolerant," says Moreno, a Cuban-American raised in Los Angeles.

For some Cuban-Americans inside and outside the group, the new direction is a patent betrayal of the traditional hard line and legacy of Mas Santos' late father, Jorge Mas Canosa, who founded the organization.

"How can you give your hand to your enemy? It's stupid," says Pedro Diaz, a former journalist who was confined in Cuban prisons and psychiatric asylums for four years and now lives in Miami.

There is a generational aspect to the clash, some analysts say. Like Castro himself, many historic leaders of the exile opposition to Communist rule are old. Many of the directors who quit were in their 70s, says the foundation's media relations coordinator, Mariela Ferretti. Several had been close friends of Mas Santos' father, including Dr. Alberto Hernandez, his personal physician.

Mas Santos denies that a changing of the guard was afoot, but adds soon afterward: "A younger generation sometimes tends to think of different strategy, different tactics - thinking outside the box."

With Castro just turning 75, and his health questionable, such issues have assumed a fresh sense of urgency.

The foundation, which once shunned all contact with Cuban officialdom, is discreetly talking to figures in the Communist island's armed forces and police, especially since Castro suffered a fainting spell in June, Mas Santos says in an interview.

The organization, the most politically potent in the Cuban-American community, has also come out in favor of allowing humanitarian shipments of food and medical aid to the island, academic exchanges with Cuban institutions of higher learning and U.S. government assistance to small entrepreneurs and political dissidents.

"We will engage anybody, other than those who have the blood of Cuban people on their hands, in dialogue," Mas Santos says.

In recent weeks, 20 of the foundation's 150 directors have resigned, including spokeswoman Ninoska Perez Castellon and her husband, Roberto Martin Perez, a former Cuban political prisoner. The departing directors accused Mas Santos of a dictatorial brand of leadership at odds with the group's very reason for existence: the promotion of a free Cuba.

The spark that ignited the controversy was the chairman's very public backing for the unsuccessful effort to move this year's Latin Grammy music award show from Los Angeles to Miami. The prospect of Cuban musicians winning awards, and perhaps paying homage to Castro, was too much for die-hard exiles to contemplate.

"Our struggle isn't against the Buena Vista Social Club [a noted Cuban musical ensemble]," countered Mas Santos. "It's against Fidel Castro and the regime."

Miami appeared to have won its bid for the annual award show, but amid fears of anti-Castro demonstrations, Grammy organizers recently reversed themselves, deciding to move the Sept. 11 ceremony back to Los Angeles.

The Cuban American National Foundation was created 20 years ago as an admitted carbon copy of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, widely viewed as one of the most potent political lobbies in Washington, D.C.

The original chairman, Mas Canosa, was a charismatic, strong-willed and larger-than-life figure who sometimes talked of becoming president of a free Cuba.

Before, the main Cuban-American political organizations had been shadowy groups, including Alpha 66 and Omega 7, which trained in the swamps of Florida for military action against Castro.

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