Capitalist or Commie?

How a Miami businessman got rich doing business with Cuba - and lived to shout about it

"I would like to do anything I can to promote the normalization of relations between Cuba and the U.S. That is for the benefit of both countries and both peoples. And the only way moderate Cubans are going to have the legitimate influence they deserve is by organizing. Moderates have not learned that yet. If they had, [Republican U.S. Rep.] Lincoln Diaz-Balart would not have run for re-election without an opponent.

"Organizing is something CANF [the Cuban American National Foundation] did well. The Foundation is a very American organization. But their values are not very American."

Aruca and Jorge Mas Canosa, CANF chairman, may be the yin and yang of Cuban politics in Miami, the magnetic poles of yes and never, but in fact they have much in common. Born in Cuba less than a year apart to parents of modest means, both once aspired to be lawyers. Uprooted by the revolution, each arrived in the U.S. with little more than a prodigious ego, a buzz-saw work ethic, and a determination to work their will. Both are wealthy, although in Aruca's estimation, "Mas has ten times what I have."

They have met in person only once, on an airplane, in 1991. Both had been in Washington to offer diametrically opposed views on the Torricelli Bill, and were heading home to Miami when they found themselves face to face in first class. According to Aruca, after the plane was airborne, Mas got up from his front-row seat and was heading back to confer with colleagues in coach when he spotted his ideological foe.

Mas stopped in the aisle, Aruca says, put his hands on his hips in an ironic, declarative posture, and exclaimed, "Aruca. Cono."

"Mas. Cono," Aruca responded, mirroring Mas's body language.
"®C centsmo estas?" asked Mas.
"Muy bien. ®Y tu?" Aruca replied.

Mas nodded and walked by. And that was the end of the exchange. It did not go unnoticed, however. Aruca's non-Cuban seatmate, a stranger, turned to him and commented, "So, you saw someone you know."

"Yes," said Aruca. "We're the Cono Brothers."
Over the years, each man has probably muttered that Spanish exclamation more than once in reaction to the words and actions of the other. At the same time, since Mas Canosa's 1985 triumph in pushing Radio Marti through Congress, there has been no comparison between the two men in terms of political clout. Mas Canosa had it and used it effectively during the Reagan and Bush administrations, when he had the ears of both presidents, while Aruca struggled during that period to be heard by almost anyone.

But under the Clinton administration, Mas's political influence has waned. And although Aruca has no organization, and no real power to broker in Washington, he does have something that may prove to more marketable in the future: contacts in Havana.

"Mas is a brilliant guy," Aruca concedes, "and the Foundation is the single most efficient organization created by the Cuban-American community. But Mas has painted himself into a corner. He became obsessed with one objective: overthrowing the Cuban government by creating a revolt within Cuba, and then negotiating a transitional government in which Castro would be replaced, probably by Jorge Mas Canosa. That's the essence of the Torricelli Bill.

"But if he were to succeed in that, Cuba would be ungovernable for 100 years, and sick again for another 300 years after that. That scenario means being controlled by the U.S. It is the Plattist mentality [after the 1902 Platt Amendment to the Cuban constitution, which gave the U.S. the right to oversee Cuba's foreign relations and intervene in internal affairs], always trying to obtain private objectives through private deals. Cuban nationalism will not allow that to happen. This is creating tragedy."

Although ideological rivals in the court of public opinion in Miami, Aruca and Mas don't compete head to head in business (Mas made his fortune through Church & Tower, a construction firm that has feasted on lucrative contracts to string cable for Southern Bell and Dade County). Nonetheless both men put their money toward their own political ends. And in that context, they do compete.

For example, Aruca says he believes that Mas knew the consequences for Marazul Charters when he lobbied President Clinton for the severe restrictions on travel to Cuba that went into effect in August 1994 during the rafter crisis. "It would be arrogant on my part to think that it was the objective of Jorge Mas Canosa, when he convinced the president to impose those regulations," says Aruca. "I don't think we were the main objective. But I think we were one of the objectives."

Ultimately, though, Aruca is confident that he will be the winner in the Cuba of the future. "Mas will remain an influential man in this community because of his ideas and his money," he says. "But one difference between us is that I realize the realities of American society: Even with money, you cannot always do whatever you want.

"I think Mas personally will have great difficulty getting into the Cuba of the future. He may be able to invest through a corporation."

So the Castro-bashing, inflammatory Mas will not be able to buy a Havana hotel across the street from the one Aruca plans to own? "No. But he can stay in mine.

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