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Jorge Mas Canosa is running late. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he says. "I was with the ambassador." Mas turns and introduces Otto Reich, the former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela under President Ronald Reagan. "He was also a member of the National Security Council," Mas says in a hushed tone. The ambassador smiles but says nothing. With a handshake the two men part and Mas heads back to his office at the West Dade headquarters of his multimillion-dollar telecommunications company, Mastec. "These are busy days," he notes. He spent yesterday at the Krome Detention Center visiting the 600 refugees being held there. Tomorrow he'll fly to New Jersey to address more than 1200 Cuban Americans at a political fundraiser. The day after that he's off to Chicago, and then back to Miami, where he'll be preparing for a trip to Germany and a meeting with Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
Up since 5:00 a.m., and with a waiting room full of people, the 54-year-old chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation will be in meetings until nearly midnight. "These are very busy days," he repeats. "But I think this is a turning point. Just look at the way things were two weeks ago. Two weeks ago nothing was happening. Haiti was on the front page of all the papers. Nothing was being written about Cuba. Now, in two weeks, Cuba has been paralyzed. There is social chaos in Cuba. Whatever good press there was left for Castro has turned around. The images of balseros, rafters, all around the world really present the vision of the dictator who is pushing people out to be drowned in the Straits of Florida. You see those faces of desperation of those individuals, those children. People are saying, 'My God, what is going on in Cuba?'"
As Mas speaks on this Thursday, September 8, U.S. and Cuban officials are still trying to negotiate an end to the refugee crisis that began in mid-August, after Castro announced that his security forces would no longer attempt to stop people from fleeing the island. In the ensuing weeks, more than 20,000 Cubans have taken to the sea in small boats and improvised rafts. The "slow-motion Mariel," as it has come to be known, could be a disaster for local officials, and an election-year nightmare for Gov. Lawton Chiles, as well as an unwanted foreign-policy test for the Clinton administration.
While Mas is right in saying that before the crisis, the world's attention was drawn to Haiti, North Korea, and Rwanda -- anywhere but Cuba -- it is also true that Mas himself had been relegated to the sidelines of public consciousness, at least outside Miami. By way of contrast, not too long ago he had been everywhere: profiled in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Esquire magazine, the London Sunday Times, and 60 Minutes, among others.
But out of the recent commotion, Mas has emerged with unprecedented prominence, anointed by both Governor Chiles and Pres. Bill Clinton as the voice of exiled Cubans, the man policymakers turned to at the height of the crisis, and whose advice they followed. Mas also provided the president and the governor desperately needed support for the dramatic shift in U.S. policy toward Cuban refugees -- from unqualified welcome to indefinite detention. In return he extracted from the Clinton administration new measures designed to hasten Cuba's economic collapse. For Mas's opponents, who see him as a right-wing bully and his anti-Castro strategy as a cruel form of torture inflicted upon the Cuban people, the turn of events couldn't have been more shocking.
Mas sees it as vindication. "The true colors are coming out," he says emphatically. "The Foundation is coming out with positions that most people would not have anticipated. You would not have anticipated that I would have met with President Clinton. You would not have anticipated that I would have opposed another Mariel. You would not have anticipated that I was going to support Clinton on this decision, because the stereotype that I've been a victim of does not indicate that. What has been said and written about the Foundation was totally untrue."
On this day, Mas is positively giddy about another unanticipated development: an editorial in the Miami Herald, his favorite whipping boy. This morning's editorial is titled "A U.S Strategy for Cuba," and it calls for "tightening the vice" on Castro by maintaining the economic embargo and putting pressure on U.S. allies to demand change in Cuba. The editorial represents a striking reversal for the Herald, which two years ago, under the headline "Bad Strategy on Cuba," attacked the so-called Torricelli Bill (now the Cuban Democracy Act) for proposing similar tactics. Mas was infuriated by the paper's efforts to kill a piece of congressional legislation he helped create.
He has a copy of the new editorial in his coat pocket. "Look at this!" he implores. "Now they are calling for more embargo. Who won in the end? Who was right in the end?" -- smile spreads across his face as he rises from his chair, too excited to remain seated. "Who was right? Who was right?" he keeps repeating, now laughing. "Who won? Who won?" For Mas the answer is obvious: He won. "It is time for us to realize that time will redeem us," he intones. "Time will prove to people just how wrong they were in rushing to judgment about the Foundation."