By Michael E. Miller
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By Sabrina Rodriguez
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Nearly all the participants had to scramble to make it to the Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport in time for the departure. Teele was in the midst of a county commission meeting and was forced to rent a private helicopter. Torano was at a hospital visiting her mother when she got the call, and didn't have time to change the khaki pants and T-shirt she was wearing.
Shortly after the jet took off at about 5:00 p.m., Spanish-language radio crackled with news that the governor and Mas had just left for a meeting with the president.
The two-hour flight was smooth, if cramped. Everyone onboard was aware of the measures Clinton was considering, Tora*o says, but no one knew with certainty what the outcome would be. Two young Florida aides based in Washington met them at the airport and drove them to the White House, but in their haste, they ended up at the wrong gate. After a mad dash, they found the right entrance. No sooner had they sat down in the Cabinet Room than the president walked in.
The meeting stretched to an hour and fifteen minutes. President Clinton had interrupted his 48th birthday barbecue to meet with the group. Vice Pres. Al Gore also attended, as did a host of White House and State Department officials. The president thanked them for coming on such short notice, talked at length about his great affinity for the Cuban-American community, and at one point joked with Mas that he knew the Foundation chairman was supposed to appear on Larry King Live that night, and if Mas wanted to, he could leave the meeting early and race over to the television studio. "The president said, 'You can go to Larry King now,'" Mas recalls. "And I said, 'I'm meeting with the real guy here. You're much more important, Mr. President, than Larry King.'"
The only glitch in an otherwise cordial affair arose when Clinton proposed to cut remittances in half, not to end them completely. Aides to the president passed around a press release outlining the change; in fact, the announcement was about to be circulated to the press. The Floridians were shocked, and Mas was adamant about stopping the flow of money altogether. According to sources at the meeting, Gore appeared to be the strongest advocate for only halving the remittances. He told the group that he, as well as officials at the State Department, were afraid a total ban would inflict too much pain on the Cuban people. A compromise was struck. The remittances would be cut to zero, but special exceptions would allow families to continue sending money to relatives for humanitarian purposes involving food and medicine. Although not as strong as originally intended, the symbolic value of the president's declaring an end to remittances was kept intact. In addition, the flights from Miami were severely restricted and increased broadcasts of Radio and TV Marti were promised.
While the policy changes were being drafted, the Floridians would spend the night in Washington in order to review the final product Saturday morning. Clinton didn't join them at that meeting; instead the group was briefed by his aides. A short time later, however, Clinton announced the new sanctions. And even though the president had rejected the imposition of a naval blockade, all in the delegation agreed the meeting had been a great success. On the flight back to Miami, everyone was in a jubilant mood. Both Chiles and Mas fielded in-flight calls from the press.
"I have never seen an administration move as fast and as effectively as this administration did in 24 hours," Mas says today, recalling that tumultuous period following Reno's late-night announcement to detain rafters. "You can't analyze the Guantanamo decision by itself and separate that decision from the other decisions the president has made. You have to analyze it as a whole package. And the package of decisions that the president made deserves the support of the Cuban-American community."
Mas declines to discuss specifically what pressure he may have brought to bear on the White House that Friday morning before the meeting. All he'll say is that quick action was imperative. "You have to understand that we had an explosive situation at that point," he notes. "And the policy at that point toward Cuba required something more than just punishing the rafters by sending them to Guantanamo. There was a need for things to be done. Let's say this: The president made a decision that I think benefits tremendously the United States. We talked to him about those decisions, and we brought the Cuban perspective."
The Cuban perspective. Whether Jorge Mas Canosa and the Cuban American National Foundation truly represent the Cuban-American perspective has long been a matter of debate. In the last few years, that debate has intensified significantly. As Cuba has headed into an economic tailspin following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a chorus of exile voices has risen in anticipation of Castro's demise. And more so than ever before, those voices have expressed a wide range of opinion regarding the appropriate response to a regime that appeared to be crumbling. As a result, the hard-line approach espoused by Mas and the Foundation -- no dialogue, no loosening of the embargo, no Castro, period -- has been revealed to be only one among several, a development welcomed and encouraged by many policy analysts and some government officials.