A Clown? No Way. A Genius!

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* Ideological rivals in the Cuban diaspora began to gain worldwide recognition and legitimacy, particularly arch-enemy Carlos Alberto Montaner, a resident of Madrid but a columnist for El Nuevo Herald.

* An ill-conceived verbal attack against Cuban dissidents still on the island ended disastrously, with Mas Canosa's exile buddy Armando Valladares being sacked by Bush administration sponsors.

* Free-lance ventures into U.S. foreign policy (persuading the Czechs to withdraw as hosts of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., independent trade negotiations in Eastern Europe, efforts to cut deals in the new Moscow) gave some State Department officials serious headaches.

* Assaults were launched on his traditional control of Radio Marti and TV Marti, two pet projects under scrutiny by the General Accounting Office, the independent federal watchdog agency.

* The extreme right wing of the Cuban community, Radio Mambi maniac Armando Perez-Roura in particular, began to steal his rhetorical thunder. Right here in Miami, no less.

Jorge Mas Canosa, at a seminal moment in the history of Cuban affairs, a time when he should have been exerting maximum force, actually seemed to be losing it. On top of that untenable situation was the impetuous behavior of the hometown newspapers. No wonder he began to slip over the edge. During his time of distraction, the papers had the audacity to:

* Chronicle in all its sordid detail the legal battle between Mas Canosa and his younger brother, which ended with the courts awarding the brother substantial monetary damages.

* Provide juicy tales of intrigue and deceit within his sacred Foundation - stemming from another lawsuit filed against Mas Canosa and others by a former vice president of CANF.

* Give substantial coverage to a number of well-known local friends who, one after the other, were stepping in some nasty muck: Luis Botifoll and his Republic National Bank, Remedios Diaz Oliver, Alberto Vadia, and former acting U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen.

What finally appears to have shoved him into the abyss, though, were two recent acts of political heresy: a column in El Nuevo and an editorial in the Miami Herald. Both items were (conspiratorially) published on the same day, Saturday, January 18.

Andres Reynaldo, in his El Nuevo column, neatly skewered the weekend warriors who continue to advocate commando raids on Cuba. The Herald editorial had the temerity to argue that proposed federal legislation aimed at tightening the economic embargo against Cuba might instead work to the detriment of the Cuban people and to the advantage of Castro. Mas Canosa was a bedroom partner in conceiving that bill, and now here was the Herald blithely aborting it. He would look like a fool on Capitol Hill: If he couldn't influence to his favor the editorial opinion of the local paper, what sort of influence was he supposed to have in the corridors of Congress?

Exasperated, frustrated - and apparently with only a tenuous grip on reality - he did what he had to do, what any beleaguered autocrat must do: divert attention from his own problems and focus it on an external enemy. He took to the airwaves and declared all-out war on El Nuevo and the Miami Herald. "El Nuevo Herald manipulates information just like Granma [the official state newspaper of Cuba]. A better name for El Nuevo Herald these days would be El Nuevo Granma!" he roared. Reynaldo's column read like the work of a man "educated in another culture or in a Marxist laboratory." The Miami Herald "has placed itself squarely on the side of Fidel Castro and his government.... The Herald [maintains a] supportive stance toward Fidel Castro [and] reports the version of events most favorable to Castro." Off the air, Mas Canosa dropped dark hints to reporters that the Herald has been infiltrated by Castro's secret agents.

Upon hearing such menacing invective from a man who lays claim to enormous clout, some newspaper executives, I'm ashamed to say, would tremble in fear. Especially if their paper's profitability was being dragged down by the recession, and particularly if threats of canceled subscriptions or advertiser boycotts became a reality.

Dave Lawrence and Roberto Suarez, I'm proud to say, stand apart from those who would cower. They are so blessed with confidence that in their response they become sassy pranksters with a devilish sense of humor: Sure, fella, we are deeply saddened and hurt when you say we've not played nicey-nice with you. (Heh, heh.) "We have sought, always, to be accurate and fair. When we have made mistakes, we have been willing to correct those.... Like everyone else, we value our integrity above all."

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