The Cubanization of Xavier Suarez

February 10, 1992
Mr. James Batten, Chairman/CEO
One Herald Plaza
Miami, Florida 33132

Dear Mr. Batten:
Last Wednesday, you called me and complained in rather accusatory terms of my "activities during the last ten days."

You proceeded to confront me with supposed quotes from a radio program in which I participated by phone. After gathering all the patience and understanding I could muster, I promised that I would review the transcript of said radio program and clarify (answer, repudiate, etc.) any of my own comments which seemed inappropriate or even out-of-context, given the difficult circumstances of not being in situ during the radio broadcast.

I was also interested in any statements made by other participants in the program, such as Jorge Mas Canosa.

I understood that you were going to send me a transcript for that purpose.
Yesterday we asked your office to see if they could follow through on that offer of a transcript. Apparently that request was conveyed to you.

Today you called me and informed me that there is no transcript as such, just some "quotes" taken by one of your reporters. You proceeded to read what were allegedly my "quotes" and it was obvious from their brevity, sentence construction, etc. that you did not have a verbatim transcript at all.

I then suggested that I would myself endeavor to get a tape or a transcript. Then you asked me point-blank if the Cuban Committee Against Defamation was "controlled by Jorge Mas Canosa."

I replied that such a statement was intolerable and that I resented it. I suggested the conversation should continue at some other time in some other fashion.

God intervened at that point since we were disconnected, apparently because you were on a portable phone. Afterwards, your secretary called to set up an appointment.

Jim, your attitude in these two phone calls is such that I prefer not to discuss this topic with you at all. In addition to which, the Anti-Defamation Committee has held one productive meeting with six Herald officials, including its publisher, who has handled these matters in a rather dignified and ostensibly empathetic manner.

If you as CEO of Knight Ridder wish to meet with the Committee as a whole, I am sure that can be arranged.

In the meantime, I remain your friend and the City's humble servant in all affairs.

Very truly yours,

Xavier L. Suarez

My guess is that a normal politician in a normal city wouldn't write a letter like the one above. Most politicos would do nearly anything to avoid picking a fight with the head of the company that owns their city's only daily newspaper. But Miami, as we all know, is not a normal city. And Xavier Suarez, more and more, is beginning to look like anything but a normal politician. Strange and dark forces appear to be working on the mayor, affecting his behavior in ways that would have been difficult to contemplate just a few short years ago.

In his book Miami: City of the Future, T.D. Allman argued that Suarez's 1985 mayoral victory did not mark the Cuban "takeover" of Miami, but rather it was a signal that "Miami politics was now firmly back in the American mainstream.... Suarez's greatest asset turned out to be what, at first, had seemed his biggest liability. It was the very fact that he wasn't a stereotypical Miami Cuban that gave him the chance to usher in a whole new chapter in the city's political history. For by the time he finally was elected mayor, tens of thousands of Miami Cubans weren't stereotypical Cubans any more either. They were just as American as he was."

Not that a pragmatic politician, a pothole mayor, a Harvard-educated technocrat such as Suarez couldn't have disagreements with his hometown newspaper. He has. For example, the Herald did not endorse him in the 1985 election he won. And Suarez himself concedes that "I've had a lot of private battles with the media, a constant war with the Herald." But the significant point is that his battles - especially those concerning coverage of Cuban exile affairs - have been waged privately, out of the public eye. By and large, his political instincts have led him to maintain a prudent buffer between his expressions of Cuban patriotismo and his responsibilities in governing an ethnically and racially fractious city.

The wisdom of that practice became painfully evident the one time Suarez chose to ignore it. In June 1990, when he denounced Nelson Mandela for his support of Fidel Castro, Suarez catalyzed the most serious crisis of his political career. The resulting black boycott of Miami's tourism industry remains unresolved, and the mayor's efforts at damage control in the black community have met with little success.

Suarez has had plenty of time to ponder that debacle, which is why you can imagine his trepidation when, in late January, he took a call from Pepe Hernandez. Besides being the mayor's long-time friend and political ally, Hernandez is president of the Cuban American National Foundation. (His boss is Foundation chairman Jorge Mas Canosa.) Hernandez was calling to tell Suarez about the formation of a new civic group. He wanted the mayor to sign on as a founding member, even to act as a spokesman. The group would be called the Cuban American Committee Against Defamation, and it would be dedicated to ensuring that Cuban Americans received fair treatment in the media.

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."

Whether he enthusiastically joined Mas Canosa's army because he thought it was "the right thing to do," or whether he was forcibly conscripted, the fact is that Suarez is deeply involved. And in many ways, his fate is more closely tied to Mas Canosa than ever before, a situation that carries unlimited potential for political damage.

Already the controversy doesn't seem to be playing well in some quarters. Coverage in the national press has cast it as yet another of those internecine bloodbaths unique to Miami, with Suarez an antagonist, not a mediator. The Inter American Press Association, a group that normally protects journalists against threats from Third World despots, last week decided to investigate the "demagogic attacks" against the Herald, the first time in the organization's history it has turned its critical eye to the United States. Also last week, in an ominous sign of dissension, Armando Codina, the Republican Party bigshot and prominent member of the Cuban American National Foundation, announced that he had resigned from the Foundation's board of directors.

Despite Suarez's efforts to distance himself from the activities of Mas Canosa and his Foundation, the perception is that of a puppet being jerked around by the puppeteer. And in politics, perception is reality.

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