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For a while Mas's considerable influence over U.S. policy toward Cuba seemed to diminish, if not disappear, following the Reagan and Bush administrations. Prior to Clinton's inauguration, for instance, the Miami Herald attempted to assess who would be in and who would be out with regard to influence in Washington. The paper predicted that Miami's Simon Ferro "likely will emerge as the Democratic version of Mas Canosa, the conduit through which the exile community's concern will pass." The president even had a Cuban-American sister-in-law here, Maria Arias Rodham, who he could turn to for advice.
"Prior to this crisis in August, the Clinton administration had at least made symbolic efforts to talk to different groups, with different perspectives in the Cuban community," says Marifeli Perez-Stable, a Cuba scholar at the State University of New York in Old Westbury and a vice president of the Cuban Committee for Democracy. "It was a healthy change from the way the Reagan and Bush administrations conducted themselves. But that policy wasn't carried over when the issue of Cuba was put on the front burner. And the reason was politics. It was domestic politics driving foreign policy."
Playing the political card has come easy to a man like Mas. He is less the strident ideologue and more the shrewd pragmatist. His sole issue is Cuba, and any politician who embraces his views, regardless of party affiliation, stands to benefit from the Foundation's substantial financial support. Over the years, many a Democrat has found that to be true, Claude Pepper and Dante Fascell being among the most notable. Another is Rep. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, one of the most liberal members of Congress on nearly every issue but Cuba. It was Torricelli, with Mas's close counsel, who successfully drafted and passed the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, which included provisions designed to tighten the embargo.
In one of his most politically prescient moments, Mas met with then-candidate Bill Clinton at the Tampa airport and said afterward that Cuban Americans had nothing to fear if Clinton were to be elected president. It was as close to an endorsement as Mas, a Republican, could make. Clinton had laid the groundwork for that meeting by publicly supporting Torricelli's controversial bill before President George Bush had even agreed to back it. Clinton's unexpected advocacy of the measure came during an April 1992 fundraiser at Victor's Cafe, a favorite haunt of the local Cuban power elite. The candidate walked away with $125,000 in donations.
In contrast, politicians who oppose Mas run the risk of finding themselves facing unexpected and well-financed opposition during their next elections. Thanks in part to the financial resources afforded him by the Cuban American National Foundation and its political action committee, the Free Cuba PAC, Connecticut Democrat Joseph Lieberman in 1988 defeated incumbent Republican Sen. Lowell Weicker, who had committed the unpardonable sin of establishing his own personal dialogue with Fidel Castro. "Mas has learned the influence game very well in Washington," acknowledges Ernesto Betancourt, who worked with the Foundation chairman for six years as the director of Radio Marti. (At that time Mas chaired the station's advisory board.) "He has been very effective and very clever in his influence on Congress. I am not a Jorge Mas basher; I do not object to him personally. What I object to are his ambitions. We have another authoritarian figure waiting to replace Fidel."
Another member of Congress currently in Mas's sights is Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel of New York. A senior member of the House and one of Mas's most ardent critics, Rangel is facing a challenge from an opponent who has received thousands of dollars from both the Free Cuba PAC and from Cuban Americans in Miami. The money, however, has not stopped Rangel's attacks on Mas. "This is madness what's going on," Rangel says by way of criticizing Mas's influence over U.S. policy toward Cuba. "Who is Jorge Mas Canosa? Where does he get his power? How can he drive our foreign policy? No one believes that the embargo is in our best interest. It's unfair to the Cuban people. The Organization of American States says it must go. The United Nations says it must go. The only group that believes they will benefit are those that believe they will take over after Castro goes and renew the glory days of the Batista years."
Ironically, Rangel was scheduled to debate Mas on Larry King's show the Friday night that Mas, Chiles, and the others went to the White House. Rangel says that when he got to the studio and learned Mas had canceled because he was meeting with the president, he was incredulous. He called the White House immediately and asked to speak to Clinton, but was told the president was in a conference. "Is he meeting with Mas Canosa?" Rangel says he asked the White House aide.
"Why, yes he is," the aide responded.
"If you could," asked Rangel, "you might want to pass a note to the president and let him know he's presently meeting with someone who is raising money for a candidate that is running against me."