By Chuck Strouse
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Suarez says he was already "aware of a desire to analyze things in the media" when Hernandez called him. It's unlikely, however, that Suarez was aware of what Jorge Mas Canosa was about to do - take to the Spanish-language radio airwaves and launch his first wave of rhetorical missiles in the direction of the Herald: "The Miami Herald has placed itself squarely on the side of Fidel Castro and his government...," et cetera.
As unlikely as it is that Suarez knew exactly what Mas Canosa had planned, it's equally unlikely he would have known the specific motive behind it. The proximate cause appeared to be the Herald's opposition to a congressional bill designed to tighten the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba. But other theories have been widely circulated, including the possibility that Mas Canosa had learned of a Miami Herald investigation into his business affairs. (Sources inside and outside the Herald say the investigation had been under way for some time prior to Mas Canosa's initial radio assault.) According to this scenario, Mas Canosa's attack was really a pre-emptive strike against the Herald. Any subsequent investigative report could then be discredited as an act of retribution.
Alternate theories hold that Mas Canosa was motivated by a need to maneuver for better position among Cuban exile leaders in the waning days of the Castro regime. A broadside against the Herald would serve to strengthen his position among el exilio's radical right wing. It might also demonstrate to policymakers in Washington that he could marshal the exile troops like no one else.
Regardless, the result was that the mayor of Miami appeared to have been unceremoniously shoved into the spotlight by Mas Canosa (and his surrogate Pepe Hernandez) in order to provide a veneer of respectability to some of Mas Canosa's outrageous charges against the Herald. Suarez was left in the politically compromising position of standing before the public to discuss not potholes but polemics, not civic affairs but Cuban affairs.
That the anti-defamation committee's formation - and the mayor's participation - was announced by Mas Canosa himself immediately after he began his radio diatribe only made matters worse, and prompted many people, including Knight Ridder boss Jim Batten, to ask the obvious: Were the mayor and the other committee members being cynically manipulated and controlled by Mas Canosa?
As witnessed by his response to Batten, such questions annoy Suarez. He denied to the Los Angeles Times that the Cuban American Committee Against Defamation was controlled by anyone other than its directors, and called the timing of its creation "a chronological coincidence." In a recent interview, the mayor said "he jumped at the opportunity" to answer Hernandez's call to arms, and that he had done so without giving any thought whatsoever to the political ramifications. "I asked a friend of mine, a very close advisor, about participating [on the committee]," Suarez recalled. "I asked him, `What is the right thing to do?' He began to analyze the political implications. I said, `No, what's the right thing to do?' Then again he started a political analysis. The people around me still have a hard time analyzing what is the right thing to do."
The mayor's denial of any political forethought is predictable, just as predictable as the reaction among some Miami black leaders. "To say that Suarez did not think about the implications is about as preposterous as Clarence Thomas saying he never discussed Roe v. Wade," asserts H.T. Smith, a Boycott Miami leader and currently no friend of Suarez. "He's a politician. Of course he considered the implications. He's alienating himself from the black community. It's not the right thing to do, not the fair thing to do, not the responsible thing to do, and clearly not the thing that leadership should do." The black-oriented Miami Times scolded the mayor in an editorial, charging that his alignment with Mas Canosa against the Herald "not only leaves the impression that he has abandoned other segments of the community, as he did in the Nelson Mandela affair, but that he must show militancy if he is to retain his Cuban base - even though it is clear that level-headedness is what is needed." Garth Reeves, publisher of the Miami Times, seems puzzled. "It was a strange move," he says of the mayor's decision to assume a high profile in the conflict. "Suarez was the last person I thought would get involved in it. He may be counting votes over there in Little Havana."
Puzzlement and presumptions of political expediency aren't limited to black leaders, however. Savvy political consultant Phil Hamersmith says, "I was taken aback. I had seen Suarez as one of the leaders of modern Hispanic politicians - emphasis on modern. In one fell swoop, he blew that. He might have made this move calculated to stop erosion among hard-core Cuban voters. He's trying to be more Miriam Alonso than Miriam Alonso. Clearly she presents a very real threat to him."
One highly placed observer at the Herald (who not surprisingly requested anonymity) echoes Hamersmith's analysis: "Here's a guy who has a potential opponent in Miriam, who is going to out-Cuban him. He's going to try to get whatever mileage he can out of that element. But the mayor sees himself as a high-road kind of guy, a twentieth-century statesman. He likes to be written about in the New York Times as this urban phenomenon, someone who rises above the fray. All other things being equal, he wouldn't want to be involved."