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Last month the Cuban American National Foundation filed a libel lawsuit against three men who strongly oppose the hard line on Fidel Castro. One of the defendants is Miami attorney Alfredo Duran, who wrote nothing defamatory but simply belonged to an organization that distributed information authored by others.
Now the American Civil Liberties Union and two of Miami's most prominent defense lawyers are taking the side of Duran and the Cuban Committee for Democracy, says John de Leon, chairman of the ACLU's Greater Miami chapter. The ACLU insists the charges are decidedly un-American.
"If you follow this logic, a bookstore owner could be sued for the content of the books he sells," de Leon contends. "He or she would have to go through every book before selling it. No, this could definitely chill freedom of expression."
The facts are these:
On October 28, the conservative foundation sued Duran and two officials of a liberal Washington, D.C., think tank called the Center for International Policy: executive director William Goodfellow and senior fellow Wayne Smith.
In advance publicity for an October symposium in Miami titled "Miami and U.S.-Cuba Policy: A New Look," CIP stated that the November 1997 death of CANF founder and chairman Jorge Mas Canosa left "a leadership vacuum." In addition, the text included this sentence: "The foundation also suffered a number of indictments for violation of neutrality laws and involvement in planned terrorist attacks." The CANF lawsuit insists that statement is libelous. It notes that the organization has never been indicted.
The suit does not mention that on August 25, the federal government indicted two foundation members, including executive committeeman Jose Antonio Llama, for allegedly attempting to assassinate Castro in Venezuela in November 1997. A sniper rifle found on a boat that figured in the alleged plot belonged to foundation president Francisco "Pepe" Hernandez, who is not under indictment.
The foundation lawsuit claims Goodfellow and Smith knowingly misled readers of the publicity. It is the second time the foundation has sued Smith, a former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba who favors dialogue with the Castro government. In 1996 the foundation won a libel suit against Smith for comments he made in a 1992 television documentary. Smith said the foundation had used money from the federally funded National Endowment for Democracy to donate to political campaigns. The recipients of those donations, Smith said, were members of Congress who had secured those grants; in other words, he accused the foundation of doling out kickbacks.
A Miami-Dade County jury sided with CANF and ordered Smith to pay $40,000. The case is under appeal.
Why did the foundation name Duran in the suit? He is a founder and former president of the Cuban Committee for Democracy, which participated in the symposium and helped disseminate the materials.
"But Alfredo Duran isn't president of the CCD or an officer, nor did he have anything to do with actually distributing those pamphlets," de Leon states. "There is absolutely no good reason for him to be included in this suit." Noted attorneys Bruce Rogow and Ira Kurzban have joined the defense team.
Perhaps it was history that made the foundation name Duran. He is a veteran of the 1961 invasion by exiles of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba and he has renounced CANF's tough anti-Castro stance.
And when the foundation last sued Smith, Duran defended him. Does Duran think this is payback?
"That might be an element," he says.
Duran's supporters see other reasons. Ramon Cernuda, a Cuban-American human rights activist and another long-time foundation foil, believes the CIP pamphlet correctly maintained that there is trouble among the CANF leaders. "This kind of suit is an attempt to unify the organization at a time when it is going through internal tensions," says Cernuda, who believes the organization's leadership is torn by the question of who should succeed Mas Canosa. He also thinks some members are "more inclined toward military actions" against Castro than others and that is causing conflict.
"You'll also notice that they didn't play much of a role in the recent political campaigns," he adds. "They are struggling and this is a way to flex their muscles."
After the suit was filed, but before the symposium began, CANF advised conference speakers to denounce the allegedly libelous statement. Those participants included de Leon, Barry University president Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, Monsignor Bryan Walsh, former director of social services for the Archdiocese of Miami, and others. None of them followed the foundation's advice.