By Michael E. Miller
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When a proposal to erect a memorial to the late Cuban exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa surfaced late last year, the Miami Beach City Commission collectively winced.
The powerful former head of the Cuban American National Foundation, who died last November, was both beloved and reviled. If the commission voted for the bust -- to be located on 21st Street -- they'd anger liberals and other Mas detractors. Rejecting it would alienate conservative Cuban-Americans. So commissioners took a tried and true route: They procrastinated -- first referring the idea to a committee, where it languished for months, then deferring it on September 9. It might be heard this week.
The bronze bust of Mas will be finished soon, so commissioners will have to say aye or nay to memorializing the man whose patriotic zeal, political arm-twisting, and paving contracts made headlines in South Florida and around the world.
Why should this dubious honor fall to Miami Beach, a city upon which Mas Canosa had relatively little political or business impact? Because of its two dogged proponents: Luis Hernandez, president of the Latin Chamber of Commerce of Miami Beach; and Jose Argote, publisher of the Spanish-language Beach weekly Art Deco Tropical.
This pair is two-for-two in winning approval for bronze busts of hemispheric heroes: The visages of Cuban poet Jose Marti (unveiled in 1989) and South American liberator Simon Bolivar (1997) grace the site just south of the Miami Beach Branch Library. They also successfully lobbied the commission to re-name 21st Street between Collins and Washington Avenues "Jose Marti Street." Undaunted by questions of relative historical significance, Hernandez and Argote hope to place Mas Canosa's statue near the two existing pieces.
Though aware that Mas Canosa was controversial, Argote believes the commissioners' decision is easy. "If Mas Canosa were alive and active, you could say that [approving the statue] would be taking sides," he says. "But since he's passed away, it shouldn't be difficult. We don't want to put any commissioner on the spot."
Funny, some of them are sure acting like they're on the spot.
Mayor Neisen Kasdin declined to comment on the issue. Jose Smith and Simon Cruz, the first Cuban-born commissioners in the city's history, are tiptoeing around it with as much grace as they can muster. "There's no question that Jorge Mas Canosa was an exceptional individual who was truly driven by love of his country," Cruz says. "That in and of itself carries a lot of merit, but we need to put it in context, and see if [the 21st Street site] is the proper venue."
Smith chaired the committee that considered Argote and Hernandez's request, then sent it to the commission without recommendation. "My reaction always is to try to avoid these things," Smith sighs. "If there's a way to accommodate Mas Canosa and his family without being terribly divisive, I'd like to find it. Unfortunately, I think it could polarize the community."
Liliam Lopez, president of the South Beach Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, thinks Mas Canosa is worthy of the memorial, but pities the commissioners -- especially Smith and Cruz, whose vote will surely become a campaign issue if they run for reelection. "It's a no-win situation," she allows.
The Mas family and the Cuban American National Foundation, for their part, have offered only lukewarm support for the statue. In May Mas Canosa's son Jorge Mas Santos sent a four-sentence letter to Kasdin, declaring his family's "consent" for installing the bust.
Hernandez stresses that he and Argote started the effort -- and that they have neither requested nor received financial support from Mas or the foundation. Hernandez has paid most of the project's cost (roughly $6000), covering part with private donations. All the pair wants from the city is a bit of public land.
Sculptor Tony Lopez, an 80-year-old Cuban-American artist, says the Mas Canosa head will be the first in a series of three. The next two will be placed at the Mas-owned Freedom Tower and at Mas's gravesite.
Eloy Cepero, a CANF trustee and member of the South Beach Hispanic Chamber, acknowledges that Miami Beach really isn't the perfect spot for it. "I don't know how active [Mas Canosa] was in the Beach," Cepero admits. Still, he thinks it has a good chance of passing the commission. "Since Jorge Mas Canosa was pro-Israeli, and there are a lot of Jewish members in the Miami Beach community, I'm pretty sure there will be no problem with the vote," he postulates.
Argote and Hernandez's reason for locating the bust on the Beach is simple: "It was an initiative of the Latin Chamber of Miami Beach, and my publication deals mostly with Beach issues," Argote explains. "So [Hernandez] and I wouldn't have thought of going to Sweetwater or Hialeah. There's really no particular reason, other than the fact that Miami Beach has a very large Hispanic community.