The Game of the Name
"I don't know how far they want to go, but I'll go 300 yards farther," vows Mario Miranda as he sits at a table in Little Havana's El Pub. Outside on this Saturday afternoon, marchers mass on Calle Ocho for the beginning of a "God Bless America" rally.
Miranda is well-known among the thousands of exiles gathering here. For seventeen years he served as bodyguard -- and close friend -- to the late anti-Castro leader Jorge Mas Canosa. But Miranda also is gaining notoriety for his role in a bitter fight to lay claim to Mas Canosa's legacy and the very name of the influential organization he created, the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF). In this David-and-Goliath struggle, Miranda's ire is aimed squarely at Mas Canosa's eldest son, 38-year-old multimillionaire businessman Jorge Mas Santos, and his foundation allies.
What began as a war of words has since migrated to the courts. This past May Miranda seized control of the foundation's famous name after its Florida corporate registration lapsed during a reorganization. On radio and in print he proclaimed himself the savior of the name, rescuing it before evildoers like Fidel Castro's agents could get their unscrupulous hands on el exilio's best-known group. In August the foundation struck back with a federal lawsuit against Miranda, alleging trademark infringement and slander, among other charges. "The name didn't need to be saved,'" scoffs George Fowler, CANF's New Orleans-based general counsel.
Fowler insists common sense dictates that after twenty years of continuous use, the name belongs to the Mas family's foundation, despite the expiration of its official registration in the State of Florida. Some of the confusion, he explains, may have come from recent changes to the foundation. Following an investigation by the Internal Revenue Service into possible violations of CANF's tax-exempt status (none was discovered), the foundation changed its name to the Jorge Mas Canosa Freedom Foundation. In a corporate version of musical chairs played out in Washington, D.C., a lobbying group created by foundation members -- the Cuban American Foundation, Inc. -- was to be rechristened the Cuban American National Foundation. Although Mas Santos and his associates neglected to renew registration of the CANF name in Florida, they never intended to relinquish the name, Fowler says.
In the lawsuit the foundation accuses Miranda of urging people to stop making donations to CANF because it is "illegitimate." The brawny bodyguard says the charge is "a flat-out lie" and that he has never attempted to use the foundation name to raise money. Fowler counters that the dispute has led to confusion that could hurt his group's fundraising. "People are calling me and asking to whom do I send my check," he maintains.
While originally demanding $75,000 in damages, the foundation recently offered to settle the lawsuit on these terms: $30,000 in damages and Miranda taking out full-page advertisements in five local and national newspapers, including the Miami Herald and the Washington Post. The settlement offer specified that the ad must be headlined "Apology by Mario B. Miranda to the Cuban American Foundation, Inc." and that Miranda admit the error of his ways, express contrition, declare a newfound respect for intellectual-property rights, and thank the foundation for treating him reasonably while teaching him about trademarks. An indignant Miranda rejected the offer. "Who do they think they are?" he asks. "I would never do that. They can all go to hell."
As a steady stream of marchers step into El Pub and pay their respects to Miranda, he muses on the origins of this conflict that predate his "rescue" of the name. "All of this shit," he says, "started with one call to a radio station."
Miranda left the Cuban American National Foundation in the autumn of 2000, three years after Mas Canosa's death. He says his departure wasn't the result of a specific conflict but rather a general unease regarding what he perceived to be the U.S.-born Mas Santos's more conciliatory approach toward the Castro regime. If not wholly amicable, the split certainly wasn't acrimonious; in fact the foundation helped Miranda obtain a well-paying job at a Little Havana social-services agency.
Then this past March, as he listened to his car radio while driving home from work, Miranda felt compelled to phone in to a Spanish-language radio talk show. A caller had confused Mas Santos with his father, ascribing to Mas Canosa support for bringing the Latin Grammys to Miami. In fact it was son Mas Santos who worked to bring the event here. Miranda found himself on the air, where he stated the father would never have favored the Grammys. He then proceeded to question the son's motives. Two days later he was out of a job, forced to resign, he claims, after the social-services agency was pressured by CANF officials. (The foundation denied any involvement in the matter.)
Other observers suspect the conflict may be fueled by personal issues, perhaps old jealousies revolving around the father, the bodyguard, and the son, or disputes over authority involving Mas Santos and a group of 22 prominent CANF members who resigned in protest earlier this year. "A lot of this is about the grief people feel over the death of [Mas Canosa]," says Fowler. "Jorge [Mas Santos] wasn't his father, and they resented it."
Ninoska Perez Castellon, a radio host and former spokeswoman for CANF, is among those who quit the foundation. The dissidents, she believes, had much more in common with the father than the son. "As far as [Mas Canosa's] passion, which was Cuba, all of us were closer to him than the son," she notes. "They have [now] destroyed everything that was important to him in the foundation."
Miranda rises from his table at El Pub and joins the throng on Calle Ocho. Despite a steady rain, thousands have answered Cuban radio's call to demonstrate their patriotism. As he walks east with the marchers, he stops every couple of yards to return a greeting or chat with an old friend.
Those friends could come in handy soon. The lawsuit is scheduled to go before a judge this Friday, November 2. Miranda says he will appear on Perez Castellon's show -- Ninoska a la Una on WQBA-AM (1140) -- to raise funds for his legal defense.
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