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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.

"Oh shit," the aide replied, according to Rangel, and hung up. (Rangel says he doesn't know if Clinton was in fact given a note during the meeting, and he hasn't had a chance since to speak to the president.)

Mas grows angry when he hears such criticism of him and his Foundation. "Instead of praising what the Foundation has done -- working within the system, getting involved in political races, going to Congress, exercising the Jeffersonian principle to petition my government -- we have been criticized because we supposedly buy votes, because we buy people," Mas complains. "Others like Rangel go out there and lie completely out both sides of his mouth, saying we threaten, we intimidate people. Is it right to chain us into silence?"

Mas pauses momentarily to catch his breath. "In any other society," he continues, "we would have been praised for coming from Cuba and within the first generation of exiles getting within the system, using that system effectively, playing by the rules, and adopting the rules of the game that were already in place here. It is a testament to the intelligence of the Cuban-American community, how they have grown, how they have participated in the system. Others of Hispanic background haven't been able to do that."

Mas ventures that Cubans have done so well because they possess a unique combination of personal characteristics. "Organizational skills, a sense of purpose, a sense of direction," he says. "But that's what makes me very proud of the Cuban American National Foundation. Extremely proud. We were lost in 1980. Nobody talked about Cuba. And when the Foundation came into place, it changed the history, the goddamn history of U.S. relations with Cuba. That's why I laugh when I read in newspapers about the Foundation: 'Those people who intimidate,' or 'Those people who are terrorist.'"

This refugee crisis has provided Mas an opportunity to draw more attention to the Foundation's history and achievements. He denies published allegations that the Foundation was a creation of the Reagan administration's National Security Council, designed to help garner support for the president's aggressive policies in Central America. ("Fantasies created by the Cuban government," Mas says in dismissing them.) Instead, he maintains, the Foundation was an alliance of Cuban Americans who were weary of the exile bombing campaigns that had rocked Miami in the early 1980s. Rather than engage in illegal activities, Cuban Americans needed to organize themselves into a political force, using as a model the highly successful pro-Israel Jewish lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). In fact, Mas and his colleagues hired many AIPAC organizers to help them set up both the Cuban American National Foundation and the group's political action committee, the Free Cuba PAC.

"Had not the Foundation been created, Miami today would probably be the Belfast or the Beirut of America," Mas boasts. "You've got thousands of people here trained by the CIA, experts in explosives, real radical people. The Foundation brought a sense of togetherness, direction. It changed completely the strategy of the Cuban-American community. We dropped the commando-raid operations against Cuba and limited them to the Everglades, where they can wear their fatigues and it doesn't harm anyone."

And during the current turmoil in Cuba, Mas contends, he and the Foundation have been just as effective in maintaining an atmosphere of relative calm in Cuban Miami. He notes that he was the one who demanded no one sail from Miami to pick up family members in Cuba, as they did in in 1980 and as they had been invited to by Castro last month.

Mas adds that his recent actions have put his credibility at risk. "The risk was that the people wouldn't listen to my call and try to go down to Mariel and to other ports to get the Cubans," he says. "The risk was that the community was going to repudiate my support for President Clinton and criticize President Clinton and demonstrate out in the streets. None of that has happened. I reminded [Miami Herald publisher] Dave Lawrence of that the other day. I said, 'Look, Dave, you have tried to question our leadership. Look at how useful the leadership of the Foundation now has been.'

"I have a constituency," he continues. "If I didn't have a constituency, I wouldn't be sitting with Clinton in the White House, and I wouldn't be discussing one-on-one with Lawton Chiles these policies, and I wouldn't be sitting with the decision-makers in the State of Florida. I have a constituency and I really, really work that constituency constantly. We have 252,000 members in the Foundation, and when every single poll comes out, whether it's done by [pollster] Sergio Bendixen or Channel 23, I'm the top vote-getter of confidence and trust in the community. I work that community. And sure I look for their support, but I'm not ready to sacrifice my principles and to do harm to the community for that support. In this case, I took a big chance, I put my credibility down on the line. Fortunately enough, I think I read correctly the Cuban-American mentality and the maturity of that community and how much it has grown up, and I came out a winner."

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