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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.

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."

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.

When the sun rose on Friday morning, Mas was already up and on the phone. He had been briefed on the pending announcement to change nearly three decades of U.S policy and, according to several sources, he was furious. This was a frontal assault on his credibility, a betrayal as profound as the abandonment at the Bay of Pigs. To detain Cuban refugees indefinitely without taking any action directly against Castro was an affront to everything Mas and the Cuban American National Foundation had struggled for over the years. Mas was scheduled to appear that evening on CNN's Larry King Live, and he was prepared to use that opportunity to savage the president.

Mas wasn't the only one to recognize the danger of "punishing" rafters while doing nothing to damage Castro. Metro-Dade Commission Chairman Art Teele and other community leaders worried that unless Cuban exiles were given something meaningful in exchange for detaining refugees, the county could erupt in violent demonstrations. Chiles, who was in touch with Teele and others, agreed. And certainly none of them wanted to see Mas blasting the president that night on Larry King Live.

According to several sources, both Chiles and Teele spoke to Mas in a series of phone calls Friday morning and throughout the day. "This was high-level telephone diplomacy," recalls a senior aide to the governor. "The reality was that if we were going to make an interdiction policy work, we couldn't do it without Mas. You couldn't have Mas outside the tent pissing in." Clearly Mas was angry, but what did he want the president to do?

If Clinton expected Mas's support for the detention plan -- and if he wanted to avoid a possible explosion in Miami -- Mas wanted him to do four things: 1) Cut off remittances (up to $300 every three months) from exiles to their relatives on the island, 2) curtail flights between the United States and Cuba, 3) increase broadcasts of Radio Marti and TV Marti (Mas reportedly wanted to know why the White House had been willing to use Air Force C130s for airborne radio broadcasts into Haiti but was unwilling to do the same for Cuba), and 4) institute a full naval blockade of the island. These options reportedly had already been under consideration at the White House and State Department, but Mas wanted to let the president know the time for discussing them had ended and the moment for action had arrived.

On Friday morning, Mas's list of demands was passed to the White House by the governor and others, along with the warning that the president had better do something quickly. "Of course Mas was going to send out signals that he was going to shit on the president," says a close ally of Mas. "He had to do that in order to get the White House to cut a deal." Later that morning the governor paid a personal visit to Mas at his company's headquarters west of Miami International Airport. (The friendly relationship between Mas and the governor dates back twenty years, to the days when Chiles was a U.S. senator and a sponsor of both Radio Marti and TV Marti. Tellingly, Mas has not offered any support to Jeb Bush in his effort to oust Chiles from the governor's mansion. "I respect Lawton Chiles a lot and I'm very grateful to him for all the years of service he provided for us in Washington," Mas explains. "I wouldn't do anything against Lawton Chiles.")

The two men met in Mas's eighth-floor office for nearly an hour. Sinking comfortably into an oversize black leather chair, the governor sought Mas's counsel and advice. But he also had a message for his old friend: This was not the time to be shooting from the hip. White House aides were suggesting that Clinton was receptive to Mas's demands, with the exception of the naval blockade. "Mas was going for the whole thing, including a blockade," recalls a source familiar with the meeting. "What the governor had to do was move him away from saying this had to be one of the four points."

The governor succeeded. While Chiles, Mas, and other local leaders would still call for a blockade, they would not make it a breaking point in their support for Clinton's new detention policy A as long as the president followed through with an end to remittances, the cutback on flights, and increased broadcasts to Cuba.

By Friday afternoon, after numerous phone calls back and forth between Miami and the White House, a plan was developing: The president would make room in his schedule that evening for a brief meeting with a delegation from South Florida led by Chiles, who, along with his aides, would decide who should be invited. In addition to Chiles, the group eventually included Art Teele, Miami City Manager Cesar Odio, Hemispheric Summit director Luis Lauredo, and businesswoman Maria Elena Torano.

In addition, of course, there would be Jorge Mas Canosa. "We were attempting to identify various leaders in Miami, some of the key, influential leaders in the Cuban community," says a senior aide to the governor. "And certainly Jorge Mas's name would come to the mind of any thoughtful person. It wasn't a terribly Machiavellian environment. The whole thing blew up on us on Wednesday and Thursday, and it got to the point where the time to methodically plan a meeting just wasn't there." In what had to be one of the sweetest moments for Mas, the group would fly to Washington aboard his private Lear jet, which seats up to nine passengers and is faster than Chiles's state plane.

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.

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."

"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."

Mas may consider himself a winner, but that judgment, too, is not without its risks. He has committed himself to a policy (and to a president) that has no shortage of critics on both the left and the right. "Let's look forward three months," suggests Lisandro Perez, a professor at Florida International University and director of the Cuban Research Institute. "Who is going to lose then? If Fidel is still in power three months from now, then those who bought into the plan are going to have some explaining to do, and they are going to have a problem."

Notes Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush, a long-time friend of Mas: "Jorge may have trouble on this. He is someone who is completely dedicated to the liberation of Cuba; that's his agenda and he does everything viewed through that lens. But now Jorge is stuck with Bill Clinton. I think he's been too supportive of the president."

There are also those who question the value of Mas's recent policy victories. "He got access to the White House," says a former federal official well versed in Cuban affairs. "But what else did he get? He didn't get the blockade. The policy on remittances will probably eventually be reversed. The ban on travel hasn't totally taken effect. He got increased radio broadcasts, but how important is that?" To obtain these few achievements, Mas had to support a policy that ended special treatment for Cuban refugees and has left thousands of them in detention camps indefinitely. "The question is, how high a price is that to pay when this is all he received in return?" the former official asks.

Politically speaking, FIU's Lisandro Perez believes that Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen have staked out much smarter positions: lashing out at the president for not ordering a blockade, attacking him for holding refugees in camps and telling them they must first return to Cuba in order to apply for asylum. Both have been unrelenting in admonishing the president, though neither has publicly criticized Mas. "It's complete demagoguery, of course," Perez says of the attempts by Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen to whip up exile emotions. "This whole thing is so surreal."

Mas agrees that some people in Cuban Miami have been using the refugee drama to their rhetorical advantage, though he won't single out Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen. "I oppose demagoguery in our community," he says flatly. "That's what many people are realizing now, that Mas Canosa is not the radical, violent, ultrarightist. Because when it came to the crisis and time to show the true colors, the one who stood up in this community before Cuban Americans and said we must support the United States, Clinton's decision is right, nobody goes to Mariel to try and pick up family members, it's time to stick together all of us in Florida -- it was Mas Canosa."

But the more volatile question remains: What ultimately will happen to those refugees held in camps both here and abroad? "This is a battle we will have to fight when the time comes, not now," Mas says. "They cannot be there indefinitely. I think that what the administration is saying now, rightfully so, is a political speech to keep people from leaving the island, and I agree with that. But at a certain point we will all have to face a reality. When the crisis is over and the political speeches have ended, then we will have to deal with the realities."

Mas outlines two options for the Cubans being held at Guantanamo and in Panama: Those with family members in the United State could be brought here and reunited. Or, Mas says, "The decision could also be made to have them remain in Guantanamo. Let them organize the first free Cuba city there. Let them elect their own government there, have their own newspaper there. Move Radio and TV Marti over there. Move factories to Guantanamo. I'm certain that a lot of factories owned by Cuban Americans could be moved to Guantanamo. Make those Cuban Americans there self-sufficient." And which option does Mas favor? "We will have to analyze that at another point," he hedges.

One of the most stinging criticisms directed at Mas asserts that he doesn't really care about the fate of these refugees, or for that matter Cubans still living in Cuba. They are all merely pawns in Mas's personal chess match against Castro. "The Cuban people are ready to suffer whatever they have to suffer in order to free Cuba," Mas says in response. "We have all paid a price. We should not lose sight of that. All Cubans have paid a price to free Cuba. We all are victims of Fidel Castro. My generation paid a price A the executions, the hundreds of thousands of political prisoners, and hundreds of thousands forced into exile. Now this generation is paying a price, which is going to Guantanamo. For how long, we don't know. But we are all victims of Fidel Castro and that is how we have to look at it."

Many people believe that whenever Castro opens his borders, he buys himself more time by releasing pressure, ridding the island of dissident voices. Many people also believe those dissident voices have a responsibility to remain in Cuba, to seek change, even to foment another revolution. "For me it's very difficult to comment on that because I am here," says Mas, who fled to Miami in 1960. "Yes, they could be more useful to Cuba if they remained there. If I were in Cuba now, I would stay. But also they are playing an important role because these images of them leaving the island have done irreparable damage to Castro and his perception."

Like his arch-enemy, Mas has had to cope with intense public scrutiny in the last few weeks, and it hasn't been an entirely pleasant experience. "I would like to be perceived as a reasonable person," he offers. "I consider myself a patriot. I am not a politician, I'm not fighting for the presidency of Cuba. I just want to make a contribution toward the restoration of democracy and a free-market economy in Cuba, to bring prosperity to the Cuban people. I probably will not even participate in politics in Cuba. If I were running for president of Cuba, I wouldn't make the kind of enemies that I make every day. And I have to make them because I am fighting the most formidable adversary you can have in the political arena in the Western Hemisphere, Fidel Castro. He is a very talented, smart guy.

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