Dialogue: The Final Frontier

When trade sanctions, bluster, and a few bombs don't work, you gotta try something else

The friendly guy at the coffee table in South Miami's Trattoria Solé bar could have been any 39-year-old, educated, self-assured millionaire from Pinecrest talking politics. But it was Jorge Mas Santos, chairman of MasTec and of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), basking in the amber evening light of this establishment and in his role as exile-prince. His quasi-royalty was bestowed on him by his late father Jorge Mas Canosa: Bay of Pigs veteran, anti-Communist commando, fiber optics cable mogul, and founder of one of the most influential foreign policy lobbies in the U.S. Seated next to Mas Santos: his liege, childhood friend, and 39-year-old CANF executive director Joe Garcia. They were amid a media campaign that had started with Havana-based dissident Oswaldo Payá's Miami splashdown on January 13, after a trip to Europe to receive a human rights award. "The founding of the Cuban American National Foundation," Mas explained between sips of beer, "was to take the struggle and the fight for a free Cuba to Washington, to the U.S. capital, to the international corridors, to use diplomacy and lobbying at the forefront to free Cuba." The struggle helped elect a lot of politicians, who helped a lot of Cubans resettle here. Meanwhile Cuba stayed free -- of exiles.

Mas was now redirecting the struggle for a free Cuba to Cuba. A peaceful struggle, led by people like Payá, who paradoxically opposes what the foundation just spent twenty years defending -- the trade embargo on Cuba.

Three weeks ago Mas proposed something that in some circles of this town creates far more scandal than the notion of capping Castro with a long-range rifle. Holding talks with Cuban officials.

That proposal culminated a series of decisions that the foundation's fifteen-member board of directors have approved over the past two years, in an effort to transform the organization's identity both in the United States and Cuba. Other moves included supporting plans to stage the 2002 Latin Grammys in Miami even if musicians from Cuba performed; backing Payá, despite his categorical opposition to the U.S. embargo and violent change; and supporting Payá's Varela Project, which aims to end Cuba's one-party system through a quirk of the island's 1976 socialist constitution. All of which led to the defection in October 2001 of about twenty long-time foundation directors, who then created the Cuban Liberty Council (CLC).

Talk of dialogue is suddenly all the rage. On her afternoon radio show on WQBA-AM (1140), last week CLC founder and ex-foundation spokeswoman Ninoska Perez Castellon was so upset she wondered if Mas would invite the MiG pilots who shot down four Brothers to the Rescue members in 1996 to his talks. "What do we do with them? Do we make a place at the table?" she seethed. Later she gave her definition of "dialogue." "It continues to be the same: a monologue that Fidel Castro has practiced with those who have gotten close to him. Because El Comandante has not changed."

But Mas was lifting the dialogue embargo. "There has always been a certain myth with the word 'dialogue,'" Mas submitted calmly, waiting for a dish of gourmet mussels to arrive. "'Dialogue' has always been construed here as sitting down with officials of the Castro regime, getting manipulated by them, and then talking about subjects that don't matter. My definition of talking to anyone is how do we rid the totalitarian regime in Cuba, and that's the same thing the foundation espouses. If I were to sit with [Cuban vice president] Carlos Lage tomorrow, I'm not going to talk to him about the theory of economics. I'm going to talk to Carlos Lage about how we can provide a better future for the Cuban people.... That's the tone of my conversation. If people want to call it dialogue, so be it. I am calling for change in Cuba."

Mas and his foundation colleagues are among a host of Cuban-American businessmen and political groups who are determined to rehabilitate el exilio's image in the aftermath of a traumatic period of international ridicule during the Elian Gonzalez affair. That would require alternatives to the angry rhetoric, confrontational antics, and occasional outbreaks of violence that have dominated el exilio for decades. Payá provided a pathway.

"Why don't you tell him what Payá said to you?" Garcia suggested to the chairman, then tells the story himself. "Payá said, 'Look, forever [Castro] had the Soviet Union and the United States. When the Soviet Union disappeared he fucked with the United States for a while but he realized it was a unipolar world. So now he had to be friends with the United States. All he had left [to attack] was the foundation. So Payá's message to us was change that perception."

"Change the perception," Mas repeated. "But on the other hand he has been the best person to, in a very unusual way, distribute our message in Cuba."

"Correct," Garcia punctuated.

The best person, that is, besides foundation directors themselves. In announcing his proposal, Mas specifically mentioned three men: Ricardo Alarcón, the president of the National Assembly of the People's Power; Felipe Perez Roque, the Cuban foreign minister; and Lage. As of press time no one in the Cuban government had replied to the invitation, according to Garcia.

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