Impartial Intolerance

Not long ago it was dangerous to support the appearance of Cuban musicians in Miami; now it's dangerous to oppose them

When Michael Greene, president and CEO of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, announced on April 4 that the Latin Grammys would be coming here in September, Miami's civic boosters crowed with self-congratulatory acclaim. Mayors, tourism officials, and the Miami Herald trumpeted the economic boon the awards show represented, and, even more important, the new era of tolerance it signaled.

After decades of opposing local performances by musicians from Cuba, influential exile leaders now were sanctioning an event that could well showcase artists allied with the Castro government. Those in the Cuban-exile community who once proudly embraced intransigence had learned forbearance -- or so the argument went. No better example could be found than the pivotal role played by Jorge Mas Santos, chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), the organization founded by his father, the late exile patriarch Jorge Mas Canosa. The 38-year-old Mas Santos not only served as co-chairman of the Latin Grammys host committee but led efforts to persuade other exile groups to welcome the affair, slated for the American Airlines Arena.

But closer inspection reveals that the harmonious façade is showing some cracks. Dozens of smaller exile groups are actively opposed to Miami hosting the Latin Grammys. Mario Miranda is among the dissenters. He believes the position taken by Mas Santos to be a betrayal of his father's legacy. He would know. A former City of Miami police officer, Miranda served as a bodyguard and friend to Jorge Mas Canosa for seventeen years during the height of the exile leader's power. He stood vigil at his hospital bedside as cancer took its toll on Mas in 1997. According to Miranda, when the end appeared near, Mas asked him to remain with his lifeless body to ensure no one photographed the corpse. Miranda says he even helped coordinate the funeral.

Mario Miranda protected Jorge Mas Canosa but lost his job when he criticized the exile icon's son
Steve Satterwhite
Mario Miranda protected Jorge Mas Canosa but lost his job when he criticized the exile icon's son

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Read related New Times story, The Game of the Name

Today the 48-year-old Miranda bristles at the image of young Mas Santos as a paragon of tolerance. In fact Miranda claims that when he publicly spoke out against the Grammys on Spanish-language radio this past March, he was forced from his job in retaliation. He blames at least two members of CANF and Mas Santos for his removal from the Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Center, a social-services agency. Now he and his lawyer, Ralph Ventura, have sent a letter to the nonprofit center, which receives state and federal funding, demanding compensation for wrongful termination. (According to Miranda, the center rejected the overture.) "He was retaliated against for the expression of the most fundamental civil right: free speech," Ventura charges.

Miranda's problems began shortly after 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday, March 14. News reports had been circulating that the Latin Grammys would be heading to Miami, and Spanish-language radio crackled with commentary on the subject. Miranda was on his way home from his job as director of quality assurance at the activities center, where he had been employed for six months at a salary of about $60,000 per year. (Before that he had served as a security consultant at CANF.) As was his custom, Miranda had his car radio tuned to Carlos D'Mant's call-in show La Hora del Tranque (Rush Hour) on La Poderosa (WWFE-AM 670).

Miranda listened as a man called the program and incorrectly accused the late Jorge Mas Canosa and CANF of betraying the exile cause by encouraging the Latin Grammys to come to Miami. Miranda felt obliged to come to the defense of his deceased friend and employer. "If I hear someone bad-mouthing Mas Canosa, I will stand up against it," he says. So he called the show on his cell phone. D'Mant recognized his name and put him on the air immediately. "He was chief of security for the foundation," recounts D'Mant. "He knows a lot of things."

Miranda says he rebutted the confused caller, explaining that it was not Mas Canosa but rather his son; the foundation's founder would never have supported the Latin Grammys. Miranda also noted that Mas Santos had traveled to Los Angeles for the inaugural Latin Grammys this past September. "He probably liked it so much being next to those people that he decided to bring it here to our back yard," Miranda concluded. (Calls to Mas Santos for comment were not returned.)

Miranda says that following the program he received between ten and fifteen telephone calls, some from foundation board members, applauding his words. The next day he returned to work. Nothing happened that Thursday, but as he left for the day Miranda noticed Raul Toraño, chairman of the nutrition center's board of directors, entering the office of center president Josefina Carbonell. He found this noteworthy, he says, because the chairman does not spend much time at the center. Toraño also is a member of the board of directors of the Cuban American National Foundation.

The following day, Friday, March 16, Carbonell called Miranda into her office soon after he arrived for work. Carbonell, who has been employed by the center for many years, is credited with transforming it into a vast and powerful social-services network. (She also is mentioned as a leading candidate to head the federal Administration on Aging.) According to Miranda, Carbonell berated him for going on the radio and denouncing CANF and Mas Santos. Then she reportedly informed him that Toraño had ordered Miranda to either resign or be fired.

Miranda says he returned to his office and typed a two-page resignation letter. "I've never been fired before, and I didn't want that on my record," he offers by way of explaining his decision to resign instead of be terminated. In the letter he wrote, "This is indeed a painful decision that I must make, but I am forced to do so. I believe that it is ... a disgraceful affront to our constitutional rights that anyone should attempt to silence or assail someone because of their views and opinions."

Carbonell sent a short note in response that didn't mention the dispute but included a severance check for $1352.47, which Miranda says he refused to accept.

Repeated calls to Carbonell and Toraño were not returned. Vice chairman of the center's board, Sergio Pereira, says his fellow board members are aware of the situation. "The board has been informed Mario resigned and that we have received a letter from his attorney asking for compensation," relates the former county manager. "My understanding is that he resigned under his own volition and that the words forced out never came up."

Several days after his resignation, Miranda called Francisco "Pepe" Hernandez, president of CANF. "I'm calling to let you know I got fired because of you guys," Miranda recalls saying.

According to Miranda, Hernandez replied, "We sent Raul over there to stop you from talking, not to get you fired." Hernandez confirms the phone call but denies Miranda's version of its content and insists the foundation was not involved.

CANF executive director Joe Garcia rejects the idea that anyone from his organization would retaliate against Miranda, noting that others on the CANF board of directors have publicly criticized the Latin Grammys coming to Miami. "If in our own house we have disagreements," Garcia says. "Why would we go to another agency to take punitive actions against someone?"

Miranda, who continues to pay regular visits to Mas Canosa's gravesite, raises a question of his own regarding current CANF leadership. "If they did this to me after everything I've done for the family," he says, "imagine what they would do to the people of Cuba."

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