Jos Cancela makes his case to WPLG-TV's Michael Putney
Jos Cancela makes his case to WPLG-TV's Michael Putney
Steve Satterwhite

Mixed Message

José Cancela has stopped eating. He carefully places knife and fork across his barely touched salad and stares at Kulchur with a wounded expression. When he asked for a lunch meeting, this conversation inside the Beach's Van Dyke Café was not what he had in mind.

"I really thought we'd just get to know each other today," he says, sounding more hurt than angry, "but if you want to grill me, that's cool too."

It's hard to square Cancela-the-shrinking-violet with the ambitious man who has Miami's political circles abuzz. There are already a host of formidable candidates who've begun campaigning for Miami-Dade mayor, even this far from the August 31, 2004, election, all hoping to succeed the term-limited Alex Penelas. But it's Cancela's bid -- the 45-year-old's first run for public office -- that has insiders lining up while the rest of the field nervously watches. It's easy to see why.

Before becoming president of Radio Unica's nationwide network of Spanish-language AM stations in 1998, Cancela held prominent television executive positions with both Telemundo and Univision. From the moment he became general manager of Miami's WLTV (Channel 23) at the tender age of 31, he firmly established himself as one of the city's power elite, his opinion curried by pols and fellow businessmen alike. Moreover watching him work a room is truly a thing to behold: Whether chairing the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce or hitting the packed dance floor inside Little Havana's old Café Nostalgia, he moves effortlessly between Spanish and English, putting Anglos, Latinos, and blacks at ease with his ingratiating manner. There's little understatement in calling Cancela the very embodiment of the Cuban-exile experience that transformed our sleepy Southern city into an economic powerhouse and the de facto capital of the Americas.

So José, how does it feel to be the poster child for the American Dream?

"No, no," he demurs good-naturedly, raising his hands in mock protest. But how else to describe Cancela's ascent? When his mother fled Cuba in 1961 with three-year-old José, his two small brothers, and his infant sister, the family arrived in Miami with little more than the proverbial shirts on their backs. Cancela's father, a naval officer, remained behind, imprisoned by Fidel Castro's new government. Flash forward: In 2002 Cancela drew a paycheck of $450,000 from Radio Unica. Not too shabby for someone whose only academic degree is a high school diploma.

It's little wonder, then, that Cancela's campaign backers are quick to favorably compare him with another business figure, Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, who also defeated several established politicians in his first run for public office.

Emulating Diaz's private-sector outlook at county hall is precisely the idea, Cancela notes. "I've rolled up my sleeves and built something from the ground up," he says of Radio Unica. "I believe that's the kind of leadership we need at the county level. I know what it's like to go to bed at night and worry about a payroll ... which is more than I can say for a lot of other people in this race. "

Of course, if Cancela is going to run on his track record as a businessman, it's only fair to point out that Radio Unica isn't quite the success story he touts it to be. Some analysts point to overexpansion. Others note that Unica's Spanish talk shows, so popular locally, haven't quite caught fire nationally.

Which brings us back to that pained expression on Cancela's face. As Kulchur begins rattling off Radio Unica's less-than-glowing finances -- nearly $200 million in accumulated losses since its 1996 founding, $158 million in long-term debt -- Cancela's visible discomfort grows.

"After 9/11 it's been a challenging time for everyone in the advertising industry," he counters. "Advertising has been hit very, very hard."

Clear Channel -- another national radio network -- is turning profits hand over fist.

"They've had some challenging quarters."

They're sure making money now, though.

"They've had some challenging quarters," he repeats dryly.

The news that Radio Unica is for sale, as reported in the Herald (and which would certainly give him more time to campaign), hardly lightens Cancela's mood. In fact it's a four-letter word he finds downright obscene. "We are not for sale," he snaps. "We're recapitalizing the company. We're seeking recapitalization."

Does that mean bringing in more outside investors?


So a part of the company is for sale?

"I'd call it capital infusion."

Isn't this semantics? Why not just admit Radio Unica is in trouble?

Awkward silence. Again Cancela makes a face as if Kulchur has just stabbed him with his salad fork.

What? What did I say?

"I didn't think this was what we'd be talking about," he offers with a sigh. "I just wanted to get to know you better today, and have you get to know me."

Kulchur presses on and quickly discovers that the subject of Radio Unica's stock truly sets Cancela off. Excitement over the company's 1999 initial public offering was so fevered the stock opened at $16 a share and closed its first day at $27. "Nice runup, huh?" crowed Steven Dawson, Radio Unica's chief financial officer, to the Herald.

Dawson isn't quite so smug these days. Wall Street confidence in Radio Unica's future is now so low its stock currently trades at about 80 cents a share. And don't try to find a current quote in your daily newspaper -- the company's stock was delisted from NASDAQ a year ago after it failed to prove it had enough tangible assets on hand to be considered solvent. On top of that embarrassment, Radio Unica is one of 300 companies that in June agreed to a billion-dollar settlement over a 2001 class-action lawsuit, which charged them with intentionally omitting key financial information from their IPO prospectus and the "artificial inflation of the market price" of their stock.

"That was a frivolous lawsuit," Cancela bristles.

A federal judge didn't find the lawsuit so frivolous. She refused to dismiss it. And you've agreed to settle it.

After several more rounds, it's Kulchur's turn to grow weary. If you think I'm being unfair, just wait until Miguel Diaz de la Portilla or Jimmy Morales comes after you. Your rivals for mayor are going to say, "Look what José Cancela did to Radio Unica's stock price. If he gets elected, just imagine what he'd do to Miami's bond ratings!"

"I'm ready for it," Cancela chuckles, relieved to be talking about his mayoral race again. "You can't measure someone by one...." He starts over, the familiar conviction and that reassuring smile returning: "Post-9/11 we've had some problems, but we're in the middle of restructuring our debt, and we're going to build up our company. I have a 25-year career [in media] built on honesty, integrity, and a lot of hard work."

A solid grasp of economics is only one of the tasks required of Miami-Dade's new mayor. As demonstrated by public spats over the Latin Grammys, for all the trumpeting of this community's new spirit -- inclusive, tolerant, and above all peaceful -- Cuba remains the area's political third rail. Its divisive force lies just beneath the surface, guiding almost every decision, affecting something as seemingly trivial as who gets to walk inside the American Airlines Arena for an international music-awards show. For those who blithely ignore Cuba's live-wire status, the veiled threat of violence lies in wait. Or something worse than violence, at least if you're a politician: the end of your civic career. Conversely, even in a town where indictments of public officials are as common as hurricane warnings, pandering to the pain and loss of Cuban exiles remains a sure-fire way to gloss over one's actual record in pursuit of votes.

As part of Elian Gonzalez's legal team, Miami Mayor Diaz has unimpeachable credentials within the Cuban-exile community. Yet one of the most encouraging things about Diaz has been his willingness, since assuming office, to try to transcend these old rules of local politics. Unlike his immediate predecessors, he acts (at least in public) as if providing basic services to residents is somehow more important than madly flipping over desks inside city hall in search of communists. In most American cities that's called common sense. In Miami it's called a radical step forward.

So, if elected, would José Cancela follow Diaz's lead on the social as well as the economic front?

"This is the most dynamic and the most diverse community in America," Cancela says, warming to the question. "As we're able to get along, or not get along; as we're able to prosper, or not prosper we'll set the tone for the rest of the country." He points to his own life as an example. His father's 1972 release from a Cuban prison wasn't quite the homecoming either expected.

"I met my dad for the first time when I was fourteen," he recalls of their reunion. "To go from zero to 60 overnight...." He smiles wistfully at the memory, though it was hardly a Hallmark card moment. "My dad was a military guy. All of a sudden he shows up and says" -- Cancela adopts a gruff bark -- "'Real men don't use shampoo, you've gotta use soap on your hair! No blow dryers in this house! Those pleated shirts gotta go!'" And no more high heels for José's sister, either. "We used to hide all our clothes in the attic. At night, when we'd all go out, we'd throw everything out the window and put them on behind the house.

"I left home when I was seventeen," Cancela continues. "I couldn't stand living with my dad any longer. As soon as I graduated high school I moved to Atlanta." A stint as an Air Force mechanic followed, but eventually Cancela made his way back to Miami. Next was a job hawking fire-alarm systems. One customer -- a WLTV account executive -- was so impressed by his salesmanship he offered Cancela a shot at selling advertising time at his station. Cancela quickly found his calling. By his mid-twenties he was already the talk of the Univision network's sales force.

Now, as a divorced father with two teenage children of his own, he's a bit more forgiving of dear ol' dad. "We all turn into our parents," he laughs, "but I try and pull it back a little bit." Just as important, having spent time outside Miami's protective ethnic cocoons, he says he learned some valuable lessons about discrimination. "In Miami I never felt prejudice. The concept of being Cuban and being a victim?" He shakes his head in disbelief at the very notion. But his first week in Phoenix, at the helm of a Univision station there, served up a rude awakening. "I was in a supermarket talking to my wife and this lady came up to me and asked, 'What's that language you're speaking? It's beautiful!' I said it's Spanish. She lowers her voice: 'But it's not Mexican Spanish.' Excuse me, miss, but we all work out of one dictionary."

Accordingly, nearly twenty years later, as the gay-rights organization SAVE Dade began marshalling influential names to oppose the 2002 effort to repeal the county's anti-discrimination ordinance, Cancela stepped up -- a gesture that helped break the ice for many other well-known businessmen, especially conservative Latinos. "It was the right thing to do," he says matter-of-factly. "Gays and lesbians are as much a part of this community as anyone else."

Yet Cancela's enthusiasm for civil rights is hardly uniform. For much of the Nineties, Cancela was one of the mainstream media's strongest voices when it came to rooting out ideological heresy regarding Cuba. When the Herald dared to oppose a tightening of the embargo in 1992, he took to the airwaves on Telemundo -- where he was then general manager -- and blasted the paper as a "force for evil" that was deeply biased against Cuban Americans.

His contempt for the Herald's wobbly stance had hardly abated by 1997, when the paper editorialized for a waiver of the county's notoriously restrictive "Cuba ordinance" in order to allow the MIDEM Latin music conference to host several bands from the island in Miami Beach. It was a question of "musical free expression," the paper pleaded. "The arts, including Cuban music, and sports, have universal appeal and ought to be apolitical."

"Do the right thing, MIDEM," Cancela shot back in his own Herald op-ed piece, insisting that freedom of expression didn't enter into it. "These Cuban artists are anything but apolitical," he wrote. Instead they were "expressing the official party line through their words and deeds while attending to their 'art.'" If MIDEM insisted on including Cubans, he concluded, it should pack its bags and leave.

It's 2003 now. Many of our city's self-proclaimed cultural commissars have broadened their perspective. Some of them, resigned to the demands of a healthy investment climate for Miami, have likewise chosen to hold their tongue. Others have come to the long-overdue realization that it's the island's dissidents -- such as Varela Project leader Oswaldo Payá -- who will ultimately liberate Cuba, not any amount of Calle Ocho posturing.

So has Cancela come around as well? Does he, like Manny Diaz, now support the right of Cuban musicians to fly into Miami for the Latin Grammys? "I have a lot of respect for Manny's position," he says carefully, "but ..."


"... there's an entire generation that's here -- they're a little older now -- but they withstood a change of regime with the idea of going back tomorrow. Here we are now, more than 40 years later. So we need to show some respect to these individuals."

Does that mean you're not open to the idea of cultural exchange with Cuba?

"We have to be open to the possibility of exchanging ideas, but we also have to be cognizant of the fact that there are people here in this community who suffered tremendously. You have to be sensitive to their psyche and their beliefs."

It's hard to tell if Cancela is being intentionally vague. After all, you can't have it both ways. Either free speech exists in Miami-Dade County -- even if it offends some people's sensitivities -- or it doesn't. Kulchur tries to cut through the abstract philosophy: Should Cuban bands be allowed to perform in Miami?

"Any artist who is part of the Cuban propaganda machine who chooses to work around the world and still go back to Cuba -- I have a hard time with them coming here."

So as mayor you'd use your power to try and block Los Van Van from returning to Miami for a concert?

"It's an issue I'd have to take a very serious look at."

That's hardly a ringing endorsement for freedom of speech, or the bold path Manny Diaz has set out on. So call José Cancela the Back-to-the-Future candidate for county mayor, someone filled with appealing qualities yet still trapped in the emotional stasis that has obstructed so much of Miami's progress.

It may be Kulchur's turn to adopt a crestfallen visage, but Cancela is back on message. "Let me tell you why public office excites me so much," he says cheerfully. "The world, and specifically our country, is looking very closely at this melting pot-not melting pot we call Miami-Dade County. As we govern ourselves, the rest of the country will be watching very closely. "

Call that the best argument yet for being both attracted to and deeply wary of José Cancela's political ambitions.


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