Back on Top

You may admire him or you may find him disgusting. But at least you've got to hand it to him: Jorge Mas Canosa has got clout.

Of late, however, not all media have brought him such pleasure. The previous Sunday, for example, 60 Minutes had rebroadcast its unflattering profile of Mas, which first aired a couple of years ago. (In light of recent events, the program's executives decided to dust it off and show it again.) In the past few months, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal had editorialized in favor of lifting the U.S. embargo against Cuba. And once again his name has been appearing with regularity in the nation's weekly news magazines and major dailies -- often on the op-ed pages, where he has been castigated as the man who wants to be the next president of Cuba.

A week earlier the New York Daily News published its lead editorial under the headline "Who Is Jorge Mas Canosa?" "The quick, easy answer: He is a Cuban expatriate in Miami who came to the U.S. when Fidel Castro seized power," the editorial began. "The whole truth is more complex and disturbing: Mas is a powerful player who emerged from the shadows for a private audience with President Clinton and is helping to drive American policy in the wrong direction."

Despite the broadsides, Mas is buoyant. After all, a man on top of the world can afford to be forgiving. Even his decision to sit down for a lengthy interview with New Times (which has been highly critical of him) reflects a new level of self-assuredness. "Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and ask what the hell is happening to my life," Mas offers in a reflective moment. "I've got no private life. I can't enjoy the good things that the Lord has given me. I can't get out on my boat. I can't get to my house on the beach. I say to myself, 'Mas Canosa, you are very stupid. Why don't you stop? Look at the price you are paying in terms of the personal sufferings and the things people write about you. Why? Why? Why?'"

He pauses, scripting a moment of drama, allowing the question to linger unanswered. "There is an inner feeling, it's a drive," he finally says. "As long as Castro is there, I feel that drive to make that contribution."

On the morning of Thursday, August 18, Attorney General Janet Reno told the reporters assembled for her regularly scheduled weekly press briefing that she didn't believe the exodus of Cuban rafters, which had begun only a few days earlier, had reached a crisis point. "We have been able to manage the increased flow arriving from Cuba during the last several days in an orderly way and without disruption to the community," Reno stated in her trademark monotone.

A little more than twelve hours later she was in front of the cameras again, this time at a hastily called, late-night news conference. And her assessment of the situation was startlingly different. Looking tired and adopting a stern tone, she proclaimed that contrary to long-standing U.S. policy, Cuban refugees would no longer be immediately released into the community; they would be interdicted at sea and detained indefinitely. "The detention of these people will continue at appropriate facilities pending a determination of how they should be processed," she said.

According to an aide to Governor Chiles, during the intervening hours that Thursday, Chiles had "declared war" on the Clinton administration. With the arrival of each new rafter, the governor saw his chances for re-election slipping away. He insisted to White House officials that if he lost this year because of the immigration issue, Clinton could forget about having any chance of capturing Florida in the 1996 presidential election.

Chiles told the White House he was prepared to commandeer Homestead Air Force Base and convert it to use as an internment camp for refugees. "We went so far as to talk to our Department of Corrections and our Department of Transportation to get buses together to barricade the roads around the Coast Guard station at Key West so the Cubans couldn't be released," recalls the aide. "We were going to declare the area under quarantine. He was ready to sign a quarantine order. We had it drafted." The governor's warnings resonated with President Clinton, who lost his own gubernatorial bid for re-election in 1980 after Mariel detainees rioted at Fort Chafee, Arkansas.

Over the course of Thursday, discussions among top administration officials led to a stunning break with the past A an end to the 28-year-old policy of giving preferential immigration treatment to Cubans. Instead of being picked up at sea and taken to Key West, where routinely they would be released, Cuban refugees would be taken to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo. Any Cubans who managed to reach the United States by raft would be held by the INS. The formal announcement of the change would be made the next day, Friday, August 19, during a presidential press conference.

According to Chiles's aides, though, the governor insisted that something be said publicly as soon as possible. So Reno called her late-night press conference (without mentioning Guantanamo) and thus averted a confrontation with the governor. Chile's demands had been met. He had the immigration showdown with Washington. But it provided him only a few moments of solace. As he went to bed Thursday night he had to worry about keeping Miami's Cuban exile community from exploding.

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