A Clown? No Way. A Genius!

February 1990: the state's Free Cuba Commission (starring Mas Canosa) draws fire for operating in secret. March: the director of Radio Marti claims a power-hungry Mas Canosa forced him out of office. April: TV Marti makes its expensive debut only to be jammed in Havana. Disturbing questions are raised regarding its value. May: Ronald Reagan and Mas Canosa hold forth at an Orange Bowl rally, their words broadcast to Cuba via Radio Marti, which leads to charges of political manipulation. June: Radio comedian Alberto Gonzalez and his program La Mogolla garner attention for poking savage fun at Cuban big shots, including Mas Canosa. July: Questions are raised, and aired in the Herald, regarding Mas Canosa's alleged ambitions to become president of a free Cuba.

Clearly the pressure was building to a dangerous level. How many more insults could a man of Mas Canosa's stature endure? Just when it seemed (to me at least) that Mount Canosa would erupt again, Lawrence pulled from his hat an exquisite trick. In August he devoted one of his Sunday flatter columns to the man himself: Jorge Mas Canosa, widely publicized but badly misunderstood, complicated, a patriot, a loving family man, overflowing with compassion, harmless.

Brilliantly conceived, stunningly executed. I don't have to tell you I regret having so completely misread that column. Only a knucklehead like me would have described it as a "disgusting, egregious paean." In fact, Mas Canosa had once again been pacified, a baby with a bottle stuck in his mouth. Absolutely superb. And its soothing effect lingered longer than anyone had imagined.

But of course Mas Canosa is a temperamental man. It couldn't last, and it didn't. In April of last year, the Herald reported allegations of severe problems - and possible illegalities - within CANF's program to bring to the U.S. numerous Cuban exiles trapped in third countries. Given CANF's sacrosanct image, and the fact that the allegations were made by a state refugee official, this was explosive stuff.

Aides are said to have carefully peeled Mas Canosa from the ceiling of his office when he heard what the Herald was up to. Outrageous! How dare anyone criticize the Foundation's good deeds. He quickly marshaled his troops: "It's a bunch of shit," CANF director Domingo Moreira explained to the Herald. "We're not going to let one bureaucrat do this kind of political hatchet job."

You could almost see a sly smile creeping across Lawrence's face: Okay, Jorge, we know you just hate this sort of thing. Go ahead and blow your top. We'll humor you by printing your rebuttals, but we're going to proceed.

Which is exactly what happened. The Herald editorial board interviewed the local head of the state agency that had made the accusations, and then decided to publish an editorial about the subject. The editorial was to suggest that in order to lift any cloud of suspicion hanging over CANF's refugee program, an independent agency should conduct an audit and an investigation. Pretty straightforward - logically reasoned and calmly presented.

The editorial probably would have run as planned, but Mas Canosa was still pitching a fit. Rumors were flying: he was out of control with rage, he was threatening a boycott of advertisers, he was ready to crush the Herald. So crafty Dave Lawrence stepped in to work some more of his magic. Sources inside and outside the Herald say he met with the fuming Mas Canosa. (Lawrence says he's sat down with Mas Canosa "a number of times over the years," but can't recall a meeting directly related to Herald coverage of CANF's refugee program.) Then the editorial, ready for publication, mysteriously disappeared. (Lawrence, a truly modest man, says he knows nothing about the fate of that editorial.)

A virtuoso performance. This is the sort of breathtaking tactical maneuver that separates the foot soldiers from the four-star generals. Mas Canosa is left thinking he'd horse-whipped the Herald and spiked an irritating editorial, when in reality Lawrence and his lieutenants had already outflanked him. Distraction, deception, clever conceits disguised as genuine concessions. Chalk up another one for the Herald.

Dave Lawrence's brilliance may be awe-inspiring, but even he is not omnipotent. It was beyond his reach to alter a course of events over which he had no control whatsoever. Mas Canosa's world - a heady mix of power, money, and lofty dreams of a triumphant return to the homeland - had begun to crack around the edges:

* Ideological rivals in the Cuban diaspora began to gain worldwide recognition and legitimacy, particularly arch-enemy Carlos Alberto Montaner, a resident of Madrid but a columnist for El Nuevo Herald.

* An ill-conceived verbal attack against Cuban dissidents still on the island ended disastrously, with Mas Canosa's exile buddy Armando Valladares being sacked by Bush administration sponsors.

* Free-lance ventures into U.S. foreign policy (persuading the Czechs to withdraw as hosts of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., independent trade negotiations in Eastern Europe, efforts to cut deals in the new Moscow) gave some State Department officials serious headaches.

* Assaults were launched on his traditional control of Radio Marti and TV Marti, two pet projects under scrutiny by the General Accounting Office, the independent federal watchdog agency.

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