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.
But what is the foundation's message to Cuba? And what medium would get it through?
The new message contained an old one, they say, namely the willingness to communicate with Cuban officials. To deflect the skeptics, Garcia made sure the press knew of an appearance Mas's father had made in 1993 on WQBA. An excerpt from it aired recently on Entre Cubanos (Among Cubans), the foundation's weekly radio offering to the island. Papa Mas told of how he had called Lage while the latter was on a trip to Chile. "In this fervor to find for Cuba a solution without blood, we speak and converse frequently with officials of the Cuban government to see how we can get Castro out of power," Mas Canosa revealed.
"Carlos Lage is a man who is very important, who should hear our message: No one here is going to kill anyone. Revenge is not what is sought. We have to find a solution among Cubans," he explained. "Suspecting that he was going to be in the most luxurious hotel in Santiago, Chile, I called him by phone and the operator put the call through to his room. And I simply began to speak to Carlos Lage [and said] that I was taking advantage of his being out of the country to tell him that we send him greetings. And then Lage interrupted the conversation and he hung up the phone. But the message was sent."
CANF president Francisco "Pepe" Hernandez, a 67-year-old former marine captain and an original foundation member, confirmed that one of the organization's traditional missions is to hold "clandestine conversations" with Cuban military officers, often in third countries. "We were trying to see if those officials could in a certain moment start a rebellion against the regime," he divulged. "And we had certain success, one could say, in holding secret conversations with some high-ranking officials inside the regime."
The conversations continue, Hernandez, Garcia, and Mas say. Mas told New Times that a group of foundation directors "with extensive experience in this" has arranged numerous contacts with Cuban military officials, as recently as this month. "Those conversations all start out as, 'What can we do together to rid Cuba of the totalitarian regime?' They talk about freedom and democracy and how they can have better lives for their families and for themselves," Mas offered. "Those conversations range from 'I'll help you, I'll work with you, I'll give you information, you can count on me when something happens,' to a reaction recently: 'Fuck it, I don't need you. I handle multimillion-dollar accounts overseas because I'm part of the economic apparatus and if this thing goes up I'm out of here with my family and I've got enough to live for two generations outside the country."
But it is Mas's idea of meeting publicly with Cuban officials that has ignited a revolt on some Miami airwaves. He and Garcia would expect the Castro regime to trash the idea, but are dismayed at the large number of Cubans on this side who are doing so. A recent Schroth & Associates poll in Miami-Dade and Broward found that 39 percent of el exilio opposes the foundation's proposal for talks. Fortunately for the foundation, 54 percent support it.
"I am extremely surprised that people would criticize the fact that we're willing to talk to people in the Cuban regime or military about how we bring about the change in Cuba sooner rather than later," Mas remarked. "Because I do not accept the fact of just sitting and waiting for Fidel Castro to die. I refuse to be an observer of the Cuba situation."
One of those critics is U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who believes dialogue advocates are conspiring against him. "You know what the motive of this is? It's to weaken us, the ones who have the strongest political power," he growled on Ninoska Perez's radio show last week, reacting to Mas's proposal. "That political power bothers them so much that what they are doing is attacking us, attacking the strength we have by sowing confusion and intrigue."
Mas is also getting hit from the left. "For the son of Mas Canosa to say that his father had something to do with the possibility of dialogue is to falsify history," alleged Max Lesnik, the 75-year-old editor of Replica magazine and founder of Alianza Martiana, an umbrella group of liberal Cubans who support dialogue and oppose the embargo. Mas Canosa made public pronouncements for diplomatic solutions with Cuba "in the same way that the Bush government is saying it wants solutions with Iraq through diplomatic means," affirmed Lesnik, who maintains cordial relations with Cuban officials.
But it is across the Florida Straits where the most formidable force field of antifoundation propaganda lies. Radio and TV Martí can scarcely penetrate it, even when their signals aren't jammed. For twenty years Cuban media have characterized the foundation as a hive of Cuban-American mafiosos and CIA agents who are bent on destroying the revolution. "We're terrorists, we're delinquents, we're thieves, we're going back to Cuba to take people's properties, we're going back to Cuba to rape and pillage," Mas recited facetiously.
But in reality it is worse than that. The revolution's print, radio, and television journalists frequently retrace the very real history of CIA-backed anti-Castro operations, which remain a source of pride for many former and current foundation members. The propagandists often benefit from the same declassified U.S. government documents that their counterparts in North America and Europe use. They also have access to Cuban intelligence experts. For example the producers of the island's main nightly public-affairs TV show, Mesa Redonda, spent three nights reviewing 42 years of violent activities targeting the Cuban government, from the CIA-planned Bay of Pigs invasion and small-scale incursions in the Sixties and Seventies to an infiltration in April 2001 by three Miami-based commandos, who were promptly arrested by Cuban forces.
The foundation was mentioned repeatedly by commentators and guest specialists such as Manuel Hevia, the director of the Center for Historical Investigations of State Security: "During the most difficult years of the [post-Soviet] 'special period' of the Nineties, the Cuban American National Foundation and the Miami Mafia revitalized with full force ... plans to assassinate our commander in chief. Second objective: Direct the principal weight of its terrorist actions to try to affect the flow of dollars to the country, with special emphasis on the tourist sector. Third objective: Promote new pirate attacks along our coasts and infiltrations of mercenaries of Cuban origin with arms of every type ... acquired at low price in Miami stores, and kilograms of C-4 plastic explosives...."
It doesn't help the foundation's cause that Cuban media occasionally need only recite bona fide U.S. news stories to make their case. What better way to discredit the foundation than to reiterate reports of how, in October 1997, U.S. Coast Guard officers found a long-range .50 caliber semiautomatic rifle belonging to Pepe Hernandez on a boat named La Esperanza. The boat belonged to then-foundation member Antonio Llama. They busted a four-man crew (which did not include Hernandez) as it embarked for Isla Margarita, a Venezuelan island where Castro was attending an Ibero-American Summit meeting. Fortunately for the foundation, U.S. prosecutors never charged Hernandez. A federal jury in San Juan acquitted all the defendants of conspiracy to kill a head of state.
Hernandez maintains the trip's purpose was not violent. "We're not going to delve into this because that person is still in a precarious position in Cuba," Hernandez says. "But the mission of that boat was to go to rescue a person who was going to defect and who formed part of Fidel Castro's inner circle at the summit. All of this has been well used by Castrista propaganda."
Havana's best supply of info-ammunition probably comes from Luis Posada Carriles's shadowy connections to foundation members. Posada, former foundation member Gaspar Jimenez, and two other exiles with assassination plots on their rap sheets are in prison in Panama, where prosecutors allege they conspired to kill Castro with C-4 explosives during the 2000 Ibero-American Summit. Like Hernandez, they maintain they were in the country to help a high-ranking official defect and that someone planted the deadly materials in a bag in their rental car.
Cuban officials never tire of pointing out that in 1985, Posada escaped from a Venezuelan prison, where he was held as a co-conspirator in the 1976 Cubana de Aviación jetliner bombing, which killed 73 people. He resurfaced in El Salvador, where he worked on a CIA-managed resupply operation for the anti-Communist Nicaraguan contras. Shortly after his arrival at a Salvadoran air force base, Posada writes in his autobiography The Paths of the Warrior, he received money from foundation members, including Mas Canosa, Pepe Hernandez, Alberto Hernandez (no relation), and Feliciano Foyo. (The latter two are now CLC members.)
In 1998 the New York Times reported that Posada, in an interview, "proudly admitted authorship" of a series of bombings at Havana hotels, discotheques, and restaurants in 1997. One blast killed an Italian tourist. Posada also expressed his desire to assassinate Castro.
The foundation adamantly denied any connection to the 1997 bombings or any armed plots against the Castro government. But its official policy on the use of violence remains mixed. "As an institution [CANF] has renounced violence to obtain the freedom of Cuba," Hernandez said. "But we understand that the Cuban people and all those who struggle against the Castro regime have the right to use all the weapons that they have at their disposal, including violence, to obtain their liberty. That's what the North American people did when they rebelled against the English. And all the nations of the world have done it to obtain their liberty."
He has one more thing to say on the matter: "This is a personal position that is not the position of the executive board of the foundation. My personal position is that it would save an extraordinary amount of suffering by the Cuban people if someone within the sphere of the Castro regime would manage to resolve the Cuban problem through the physical disappearance of Fidel and Raúl Castro. But it's not us who are going to conspire or give money to some mercenaries, et cetera, so that they carry out that act. That we have renounced."
Back at Trattoria Solé, Joe Garcia was unaware of the mysterious passage in Posada's autobiography. "He said it in his book?" he asked. The subject disgruntled Mas. "I've seen that, I've seen that," he grumbled. "He said in his book that he received money from Jorge Mas Canosa. He doesn't say what he received the money for." The chairman plowed ahead. "We send money today to a lot of dissidents and people who leave Cuba who ask us for help," he continued. "We don't track what they do with that money." It is possible that foundation money had made its way into violent hands, he conceded. "Everything in life is possible. Is the foundation responsible for any type of activities within Cuba or bombings or these things that have been alluded to? The answer is absolutely not." Mas had "serious doubts" about Posada's credibility when it comes to "the activities that Posada purports to undertake." "I think there's a lot of mythology to Posada Carriles and others," Mas concluded.
Mas says he can only speak for the foundation as a whole, and the foundation wants a peaceful transition to democracy. It is not possible for him to control what the 170 directors, associate directors, and trustees do or say individually. "Foundation directors are free to do activities on their own. If a director tomorrow commits a crime, you know, murders someone, that's not a reflection on the organization or ourselves," he submitted. "On the other hand, my father preached that the time for an armed invasion of Cuba or utilizing violent means to [liberate] Cuba passed in the 1960s."
Garcia wanted to change the subject. Why not leave the mythology behind and look to the future? he asked.
Why not indeed? Wouldn't talks between the foundation and Cuban officials provide an opportunity to address the "terrorism" matter and put it behind them? The Cuban government thinks not. "Who is this gentleman to think that a government has to respond to him? Who is this gentleman to think he can choose whom he can speak to in a government?" scoffed Juan Hernandez, the press secretary at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. "The reality is that the organization that he directs has been involved in terrorist acts against Cuba. With the world immersed in the struggle against terrorism it would be absurd to listen to terrorists."
"We don't have the means or the ways to compete with Mesa Redonda every evening trashing the foundation," Mas conceded. But getting trashed is a start, he and Garcia reasoned. "The name recognition is there. That's the first hurdle," Mas assured.
So what is the PR strategy for turning this negative image around? "We overcome that message by continuing to increase our contacts on the island," Mas explained. "Human contact is important." Travelers have taken in about 100 copies of a foundation-produced video. They've also smuggled in newsletters with photographs of smiling foundation staff members and many references to "peace," "justice," and "solidarity." "Don't let the Castro regime divide us," Mas wrote in last August's issue. "Don't believe that we want to return to the island to take control of anything. We want to return because it is our right and we are going to do it, but with a mission of offering responsible service to democracy and prosperity for Cuba." An electronic newsletter, El Pitirre, goes out to the small percentage of the island populace with Internet access, including Cuban officials whose e-mail addresses foundation employees have collected. (None has responded, they say.)
Then there is Among Cubans, the hour-long Spanish-language talk radio show the foundation spends about $120,000 per year to beam into Cuba once a week. Ramon Colas started the program shortly after the 41-year-old defected from Cuba a year ago. "We've succeeded in sending a message of hope," he said, referring to his 48-year-old co-host Omar Montenegro. "The analysis is very objective and many Cubans on the island and here participate. We've never done a program without the participation of the internal dissidence," Colas added. The concept contrasts with that of their predecessor Ninoska Perez, who usually devoted her daily two-hour show Voz de la Fundación to rebuking the Castro regime for a variety of crimes against humanity. "People who are specialists in the medium tell me, 'Finally, there's a program in Miami that doesn't confront the Cubans,'" Colas said proudly. "On the contrary, it's a program that unifies Cubans. They call and we converse and we discuss differences in a civilized, reflective environment."
If Mas and Garcia have doubts that these low-level PR tactics will ever counteract the Cuban government's anti-foundation treatises, they don't admit it. "People who are intelligent enough will see through those who are trying to taint us," Mas said.
There's still Payá, though, who along with other dissidents on the island embodies the most radical element of the foundation's new message: The confrontational approaches of the past four decades -- trade sanctions, hostile broadcasts, and calls for violent uprisings -- will not achieve democracy. And a genuine civic movement must be led by opposition figures on the island.
Payá's Varela Project calls on the Castro government to allow a national referendum aimed at ending Cuba's one-party system. The referendum language would include guarantees of freedom of the press, freedom to organize new political parties, and freedom for candidates from any party to get on the ballot in local, regional, and national elections. The project relies on a section of Cuba's 1976 socialist constitution, which allows for citizen initiatives if their organizers collect 11,000 signatures, which Payá and others have done. Former Czech president Vaclav Havel has nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. A recent Bendixen & Associates poll found that 72 percent of Cubans in Broward and Miami-Dade think the project is a "good idea" while 9 percent consider it a "bad idea." Also, 78 percent supported Payá's push for a peaceful transition, while 16 percent favored an "abrupt and violent" one.
Payá actually met with Jorge Mas Canosa and three other foundation directors in 1997, several months before Mas Canosa's death. The encounter revealed fissures already existed in the foundation over whether to support dissidents working for reform, rather than relying on the embargo or hoping for a violent uprising. The unpublicized meeting took place at Mas Canosa's house on Old Cutler Road, and included Domingo Moreira, Pepe Hernandez, and Juan Suarez Rivas, a friend of Payá's.
According to Hernandez, Roberto Martin Perez (the husband of Ninoska Perez) had come but left in anger. "I don't think he was in agreement then with conversing with Payá. It was a little tense," Hernandez recounted. "Payá wanted to talk to Jorge at that time. It wasn't really to ask for help," the foundation president recalled. "It was to ask Mas Canosa not to oppose him." Payá received the response he had sought. "Jorge said that even though we had reservations about any project that tried to work inside the system, we weren't going to attack it and that he could be sure to count on our support any time he needed it," Hernandez remembered. Hernandez left the meeting opposed to the Varela Project, suspecting it could be a maneuver by Castro.
In mid-2001 Payá sent his Puerto Rico representative Frank de Armas to Miami to ask for the foundation's support. This time he received it. Shortly afterward, Moreira issued a press release in support of the project. "It said we support the Varela Project like we support all initiatives that emanate from Cuba and that try to bring a peaceful transition to democracy," Garcia recounted. That same day Ninoska Perez spent two hours slamming the Varela Project on the foundation's radio show. "And the next day," Garcia continued, "with all the calm in the world Domingo said, 'Reissue the press release, put it up on our Website, ignore what she's doing.'" Perez quit soon thereafter.
The foundation leadership stayed away from Payá's "convocation" with about 100 exiles during his brief visit to Miami, apparently for tactical reasons. But just before his departure for Mexico a group of foundation directors met with him privately at the Miami Lakes home of one of Payá's relatives. In addition to Mas, Garcia, Hernandez, and Moreira, the group included Carlos de Cespedes and Remberto Perez.
The foundation sent Payá off with a full-page ad in El Nuevo Herald that praised Payá and declared victory in the "Battle of Washington," Mas Canosa's term for the lobbying effort the foundation began in 1981. As evidence of President Bush's commitment toward keeping the embargo, it listed five Cuban Americans who now hold important positions in the administration, including HUD Secretary Mel Martinez and White House advisors Emilio Gonzalez and Otto Reich. It then proclaimed that the only people who could really bring democracy to Cuba were on the island. Therefore the foundation's -- and el exilio's -- new mission was to support them, however hapless they might be.
"The Cuban opposition, repressed, asphyxiated by a regime of shame, has not only the right but the necessity to use any route, any opening, any contradiction that permits it to confront the regime with its own lies," the ad proclaimed. "In our opinion, this is what the Varela Project attempts and why it has our sympathy."
For his part, Hernandez says that through Payá he realized that he was ignorant of the reality of Cubans on the island. "I think that this trip gave us the opportunity to see that reality more closely, because unfortunately many of us have spent so much time outside of Cuba," he lamented.
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A month later the foundation appears to be winning the battle for Miami, with the Schroth poll showing the foundation's approval rating at 54 percent compared with 38 percent for the CLC. But the battle for Cuba is another story. The Cuban government has officially "archived" the Varela Project. Moreover, in April members of the Castro regime are scheduled to meet with about 400 exiles in Havana to discuss their concerns. The foundation was not invited.
El exilio's liaison for the talks is Max Lesnik, who is skeptical that Mas and Garcia will ever play a significant role in Cuba. The new foundation has more to do with the Mas in MasTec, he assured. "You can't be chairman of the board of a company that is on the stock market and have relations with terrorism," Lesnik observed, then offered a summary of the situation. "He begins to adopt a position to take care of his economic interests, to manage the Cuban situation more cautiously, and to separate himself from those who along with his father practiced the politics of terrorism. And to be able to do that he needs to find a point of reference. And what does he find? That there's an internal dissident movement presided over by someone named Payá. And then he says, caramba, if we support Payá I'm showing first that I don't have presidential ambitions in Cuba, second that my position is more acceptable in the international world as a moderate person, and I avoid the responsibility of directing a process in which I'm not going to have the unanimous control over the right-wing exile that Jorge Mas Canosa had."
Jorge Mas Santos, who noted that he recently called up national security advisor Condoleezza Rice to discuss scenarios for a post-Castro Cuba, offers a different chronology: "What we've done at the foundation over the last two years is said, hey, listen, we've never been more powerful in Washington. We have people who have worked with us on the Cuba issue in the White House and the national security council and the state department. We have the leadership in Congress. We're fine. Therefore we're going to put our resources, our battle, on the island of Cuba to help the opposition and dissident movement in Cuba have a light shine on them. And the opposition movement in Cuba now has international recognition. And we've had a small part to play in that, I would think."
And by seeking dialogue in Havana Mas has sent a message to Miami. This Sunday he is due to receive a free-speech award from another foundation: People for the American Way.