Leave the Driving to CANF

The list of people exploiting Elian Gonzalez for personal gain is both long and distinguished. We have presidential candidates pandering for votes, politicians climbing all over one another for quality face time on television, lawyers and publicists claiming to work pro bono on a case they know is garnering their practices a fortune in free publicity, and family members who have latched on to Elian as if he were a magical "E" ticket at Disney World. Which, of course, he has been.

And the list goes on. The boy's neighbors are gouging news crews -- $500 per day in some cases -- to camp out in front of their homes and snap the latest pictures of Elian, because journalists (myself included) can't seem to stop writing and talking about him. CBS has a miniseries in the works. Internet porn sites are now using the kid's name to attract new customers.

But of all the people using Elian for devilish ends, no one has more at stake than Jorge Mas Santos, chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), and the oldest son of the late Cuban exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa.

Their fates now inextricably intertwined, Jorge Mas Santos and Elian will brave the future together
Their fates now inextricably intertwined, Jorge Mas Santos and Elian will brave the future together

Since Mas Canosa's death more than two years ago, Mas Santos has attempted to live up to his father's legacy, only to be revealed as an empty suit by comparison. Time and again the younger Mas has shown he is not the man his father was. Most significantly he has not earned the trust and respect within the exile community his father commanded so thoroughly and brandished so menacingly when the need arose. For Mas Santos there is no escaping the view that he is now and forever will be an American-born rich boy who has had everything in life handed to him by his father.

When Mas Canosa spoke about the experience of immigrants, he did so with an authority born of personal experience. In contrast Mas Santos's words ring hollow. His public-speaking skills in general are poor, and he is visibly ill at ease in front of crowds. Often he comes across as aloof, even a bit snobbish.

At the home of Elian's Miami relatives, it is always easy to pick out Mas Santos from the working-class throngs who congregate there. And it's not just his tailored suits that give him away; so too does the uneasy look on his face as he mixes with an array of people he will never consider his equals.

This chasm of wealth and attitude has allowed others to challenge his ascendancy as the person who speaks for el exilio in Miami and elsewhere. Immediately following Mas Canosa's death, fissures were exposed within the exile community as José Basulto of Brothers to the Rescue, and Ramon Saul Sanchez of the Democracy Movement commanded more attention. A debate has been under way ever since: Is the exile movement a monarchy in which leadership is determined by birthright, or does true leadership flow from the will of the people?

As Mas Santos had to deal with such rebellious questions here in Miami, the power and political clout of his father's once-feared Cuban American National Foundation has been steadily eroding in Washington. Buffeted by scandals (some of its members were implicated, although later cleared, in a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro) and facing a stepped-up campaign among American agricultural interests and others to end the 40-year-old embargo against Cuba, the foundation has been put on the defensive like never before.

The election last year of Jeb Bush as governor also weakened CANF. Despite the fact that both are Republicans, Bush and Mas Santos are not close. Their strained relationship dates from 1992, when Jorge Mas Canosa met with Bill Clinton and declared that it was acceptable for Cuban Americans to vote for Clinton instead of George Bush in that year's presidential election.

After Jeb Bush was elected, he promoted his own cadre of Cuban Americans, such as Al Cardenas and Roberto Martinez, and he made it clear that Republicans in Washington didn't have to go through the foundation to win votes in Florida, which partially explains why these days the CANF is donating so much money to Democrats.

With these myriad problems swirling ominously, time did not seem to favor Mas Santos. And then Elian Gonzalez floated into the picture.

Among the crush of exiles who rushed to Little Havana for the never-ending photo op that ensued, Mas Santos initially remained to the side, his voice lost in the rising cacophony over the boy's fate. In recent weeks, however, that has changed. Mas Santos has taken a much more active role. He has tightened his grip on Elian's Miami relatives, and is maneuvering to keep his rivals, most notably Ramon Saul Sanchez, from having any contact with the family.

Mas Santos has become a fixture at every press conference held by the Miami relatives or their attorneys. When Elian visited his grandmothers at the Miami Beach home of Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, Mas Santos drove the child to the meeting. (Last week a Cuban government official told me that when officials complained to the State Department about Mas Santos's presence, the United States responded by saying that Mas Santos was "the official driver of the Gonzalez family.") After dropping off the child, Mas Santos went to a neighbor's home, where he tried to spy on the meeting.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Miami Concert Tickets