He Made Dade

Battling cancer, veteran pol Dante Fascell talks of war, Cuba, and a lifetime of putting Miami on the map

Vietnam dragged on. More young Americans came home in body bags. Though Fascell continued to vote funding for the war, privately he was confirming suspicions about the military and its bureaucratic allies. (He refers to Kennedy- and Johnson-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara sarcastically as "the whiz kid.") After Richard Nixon appointed Henry Kissinger national security adviser and then secretary of state, things got worse, Fascell says. He has kind words for almost everyone he knew in government, but none for Kissinger. "Henry Kissinger believes in the power and influence of the economy and military, period," hisses Fascell. "He thinks that's the only way that ever works. His theory is carry a big stick and use it and make a lot of loud noise."

Fascell finally became a vocal critic of the Vietnam conflict in 1971; American troops had invaded Laos in pursue of Viet Cong guerrillas who had fled there. "What the hell kind of deal is that?" he asks incredulously. "What about the Constitution of the United States, Congress, the American people? Congress was lying low and pretty much letting the president do what he wanted. That was crazy. We had to do something about this, to get control of it. Nixon was talking about dropping the atom bomb on Hanoi. He should have dropped Checkers," he says scornfully, referring to Nixon's famous cocker spaniel.

Fascell began to work the halls of Congress and by 1973 had cosponsored -- with New York Sen. Jacob Javits and others -- one of the crown jewels of his foreign affairs career: the War Powers Act. (He would also write a law prohibiting U.S. forces from using chemical and biological weapons, which he considers a major foreign policy achievement.) The new law was intended to limit a president's ability to dispatch troops into battle without congressional approval, which had happened 200 times since 1789.

The Fascell-sponsored bill, which was approved by Congress and survived a veto attempt by Nixon, states that a president must get congressional approval for military incursions that last longer than 90 days. Fascell prayed it would prohibit more protracted, undeclared wars like Vietnam.

But by that time an issue closer to home worried him: Cuba. A half-million people had abandoned the island for South Florida. Many were becoming citizens, registering as Republicans, and voting in his district. In general they were more conservative than Fascell on foreign policy; many hated the Democrats because they thought President Kennedy had betrayed their cause during the 1962 Bay of Pigs invasion. They reasoned that the president had refused to send air support for the landing force.

But Fascell made many friends in the Cuban-American community during the 1960s by winning federal aid for resettlement of exiles. The money went for housing, job training, clothing, and food. "Even though Cubans later began to vote Republican for president, they supported Dante," says friend Bernardo Benes, a former banker and moderate Cuban community leader. "People felt a lot of gratitude. He really is a wonderful man."

Fascell, with help from the State Department, assisted Benes in bringing part of his family from Cuba in the early 1960s. In 1978 he helped Benes negotiate with Havana for the release of hundreds of Cuban political prisoners and their families. "I went to see Fascell in his Washington office one day at noon," recalls Benes. "He picks up the phone and Cyrus Vance, the secretary of state, picks it up on the other end. No secretary, no nothing. I met with Vance at 5:00 p.m. that day. That's how powerful Dante was."

Jorge Mas Canosa, late chairman of the conservative Cuban American National Foundation, also used Fascell as an adviser. Mas Canosa visited Fascell in the late 1970s. With his small stature and aggressive demeanor, he was a mirror image of Fascell. Benes claims Fascell encouraged Mas Canosa to model his organization on the American Israel Political Action Committee, the extremely successful pro-Israel lobby.

"Jorge Mas Canosa came to talk to me and I said to him, 'Fine, but I'm only one vote. You won't be effective unless you talk to a lot of people,'" Fascell recalls. The foundation became a tremendously successful lobby against Fidel Castro's Cuba. "Mas Canosa realized that organization, money, and votes would open the door in Congress for people to listen to your views," Fascell recalls. "He became Americanized."

Fascell became a staunch defender of CANF, which surprised some of his more moderate supporters. The congressman helped secure tens of millions of dollars for Radio Marti in 1983 and TV Marti in 1987, both foundation-backed projects. In the 1980s he supported the Nicaraguan contras, allies of the Cuban exiles. "When I first met Dante, I was more conservative and he was more liberal on Cuba," says attorney Alfredo Duran, a Fascell admirer. "Over the years our positions changed. Dante changed because his constituency changed. He was a politician and he needed their votes."

Dario Moreno, a professor of political science at Florida International University, contends Fascell's position on Cuba was a model for many other South Florida politicians, including Pepper, former Congressmen William Lehman and Larry Smith, and current U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch. "These men are or were all liberal on social policy, but they took the hard line against Castro," says Moreno. "In Dante's case I don't think it was just a matter of convenience. He really is an anti-communist. And since he is Italian American, he has a good understanding of ethnic politics."

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