DeFede

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.

More recently Elian's cousins and other family members have flown to Washington aboard Mas Santos's jet to meet with members of Congress in an effort to arrange for the boy's citizenship. And during last week's meetings on Capitol Hill, Mas Santos personally escorted two of the cousins to conclaves with more than a dozen senators and congressmen.

It is evident that Mas Santos has decided to tie his political future to the fate of Elian Gonzalez. Given the volatile nature of this affair, that decision can only be seen as an extremely risky move for him and the Cuban American National Foundation. Already it is clear, for example, that while Mas Santos has been using the Elian imbroglio to leverage personal power, he actually has been undermining the pre-eminent goal of the exile community -- wresting control of Cuba from Fidel Castro.

Consider the following: Prior to Elian's arrival in South Florida, the world's attention regarding Cuba was focused on Castro's violations of human rights. The critical tone was set by Pope John Paul II during his visit there in early 1998. It continued last year following Castro's imprisonment of four leading dissidents. In April 1999 the United Nations Commission on Human Rights voted to return Cuba to its list of significant violators.

This past November, during the Ibero-American Summit in Havana, leaders from Spain, Portugal, and Brazil used the event to call for democratic reforms in Cuba. The president of Mexico, who also attended the summit, broke with his country's four decades of unwavering support for Cuba by speaking out in support of human rights. "There can be no sovereign nations without free men and women [who] can fully exercise their basic freedoms: the freedom to think and opine, the freedom to act and participate, the freedom to dissent, the freedom to choose," declared President Ernesto Zedillo.

Nine days after the summit concluded, Elian landed in the United States. Since then the world has not been discussing the need for change in Cuba but rather the need to return a little boy to his father. The debate today isn't about human rights; it is about parental rights. According to every poll taken, Americans overwhelmingly believe Elian should be returned to Cuba. Incredibly Mas Santos and his Cuban American National Foundation have somehow managed to create a situation in which the American public, indeed the entire world, sides with Fidel Castro, not them.

Jorge Mas Canosa must be spinning in his grave.

Mas Santos is now in uncharted territory, which is why his fixation on Elian Gonzalez is so dangerous. In the old days, he would watch his father fly to Washington and almost always get what he wanted. No more. The fact that Elian was not granted citizenship within a week of Congress returning to Capitol Hill is an indication that big trouble looms ahead.

For weeks Mas Santos, Sen. Connie Mack, and Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart were predicting swift passage of the bills that would grant Elian citizenship or legal residency, thereby removing the case from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. There's little doubt that in the old days a bill would have been on the president's desk promptly.

But politicians like polls, and once members of Congress realized the American people strongly believed the boy should be returned to his father, they left Mas Santos and the foundation out in the Washington cold -- a remarkable rebuke of Miami's exile community.

Now Mas Santos must figure out where he goes from here. If he can prevail in keeping Elian in the United States -- through court action or by mounting a new attack on Congress -- he will solidify his role not just as an exile leader but as someone who can get things done. In addition he will have resurrected, at least temporarily, the reputation of his moribund foundation.

If Elian is returned to Cuba, however, Mas Santos could still find a way to benefit. Amid threats of civil unrest, he might take a leadership role in keeping Miami relatively calm. And should he succeed in that, the Clinton administration and others would be indebted to him.

But after all the bombastic rhetoric, much of it uttered by Jorge Mas Santos himself, keeping Miami calm would be nothing short of miraculous.

jim.defede@miaminewtimes.com

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