THE CUBA OBSESSION
by Jane Franklin
[Published in The Progressive, July 1993]
Two days before the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, The Miami Herald reported that prominent Cuban American attorney Mario Baeza, partner in the prestigious Manhattan firm Debevoise & Plimpton, was about to be nominated to the post of Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs. The next day, Baeza's name was crossed off the list of State Department nominees sent to Congress. Why? Because he had been zapped by the political machine of Jorge Mas Canosa, chair of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF).
Word from Mas was enough to send three influential Democrats--New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, Florida Senator Bob Graham, and New Jersey Representative Robert Torricelli--scurrying to President-elect Clinton, who obediently canceled the nomination. Although the pretense persisted for weeks that Mas Canosa's word was not absolute and the nomination was simply "on hold," María Echaveste, deputy director of personnel for Clinton's transition team, said on the day Baeza's name was stricken that he was definitely not going to get the job.
Who is this Jorge Mas Canosa with the influence to veto the President's first choice for the State Department's top Latin American post? How did he get the power to reshape the budding Administration's foreign policy?
In March, the Scripps-Howard Foundation gave its Service to the First Amendment award to David Lawrence Jr., publisher of The Miami Herald, for a series of columns he wrote after Mas launched a campaign against the Herald and its sister publication, El Nuevo Herald, in January 1992. Lawrence had editorialized against the so-called Cuban Democracy Act. Designed by CANF, the legislation to tighten the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba was about to be introduced by Torricelli and Graham. Mas denounced the Herald as a tool of Fidel Castro. Death threats and bomb threats followed against Lawrence and other Herald executives. Newspaper vending machines were smeared with feces. Recognizing that it takes courage to disagree with Mas Canosa, the Scripps-Howard Foundation praised Lawrence's "brave, balanced reaction in the face of threats both to his life and to his profession."
Last August, Americas Watch and the Fund for Free Expression issued a report about abuse of human rights in Miami, documenting a campaign of intimidation and terror and criticizing U.S. Government "encouragement, primarily through funding, of groups that have been closely identified with efforts to restrict freedom of expression." The "principal example," says the report, is money granted to such groups as the Cuban American National Foundation, led by Jorge Mas Canosa.
Why do Democratic political leaders like Bradley, Graham, Torricelli and even the President do the bidding of this man? Some people answer that Mas is a multimillionaire power broker whose organization donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to politicians. For example, in April 1992, with his Presidential campaign grasping for money, Governor Clinton, in what The Boston Globe called "a Faustian bargain," attended a CANF-sponsored fund-raiser in Miami's Little Havana and announced to cheers, "I have read the Torricelli-Graham bill and I like it." He also declared that the Bush Administration "has missed a big opportunity to put the hammer down on Fidel Castro and Cuba." Clinton was rewarded with $125,000 and received an additional $150,000 at another CANF-sponsored event the same day in Coral Gables. Just before a key vote on the bill last September, Presidential candidate Clinton issued a press statement urging Congress to vote for it. Clinton's fee of $275,000 was cheap, merely half the $550,000 given by Cuban Americans to President Bush on October 23, the day he went to south Florida to sign the Cuban Democracy Act into law.
But there's more to this story than greed. Mas is just another in a long line of nefarious characters enlisted by Washington to overthrow Fidel Castro. In 1960, while Mas was a mere underling in the CIA plan for the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Eisenhower Administration was recruiting assassins from the top of organized crime to kill Prime Minister Castro. Evidently figuring that crime bosses were its best bet since they had lost Havana to revolutionaries and would be eager to resurrect the Playground of the Western World there, the U.S. Government hired Sam Giancana, John Roselli and Santo Trafficante Jr. to plot assassination upon assassination.
This matrix of machination was teaching a young Jorge Mas Canosa his lessons about democracy. Arriving from Cuba in 1960, he quickly became an expendable member of Brigade 2506, trained by the CIA to recapture Cuba. He was aboard one of the launches headed for the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. It never landed.
Perhaps Mas's first lesson in how to manipulate Washington came when President Kennedy, to placate Bay of Pigs prisoners released by Cuba, offered military commissions to Brigade 2506. Mas accepted the offer but soon chose to resume covert operations. As a commentator on CIA's Radio Swan, one of E. Howard Hunt's projects, he broadcast propaganda to Cuba, a profession he still pursues. Mas boasts that he "ran commando operations" against Cuba until 1968.
At that time, he used his acquired skills to change his status. With close ties to the CIA and other underworld outfits, Mas was ready for rapid inroads into Florida's corporate world. Acquiring ownership of Iglesias y Torres, an engineering and subcontracting firm he anglicized to Church & Tower, Mas rapidly became a multimillionaire, profiting especially from contracts with Southern Bell.
He cultivated such Florida Democrats as Senators Richard Stone and Lawton Chiles (who is now governor) and Miami House members Claude Pepper and Dante Fascell. But Mas has been a Republican stalwart since even before he became a citizen in 1981. When Stone lost his seat to Republican Paula Hawkins in the 1980 Reagan landslide, Mas was one of her main supporters. According to Raúl Masvidal, a CANF founder who later left the organization, Mas then "parked himself" in her Senate office.
The nexus of CIA, business, and politics made Mas a valuable instrument for the Reagan Administration when it took over the White House in 1981. Reagan's first National Security Adviser, Richard Allen, recognized right-wing Cuban Americans as natural allies in the escalating global war against communism. Allen was instrumental in creating the Cuban American National Foundation, a tax-exempt organization that provided Mas his springboard to national and international politics. Other founders fell away as Mas shaped CANF to fit the White House agenda. In return, the Reagan-Bush regime anointed him virtual president of the Cuban exile community, designating him the liberator who would "return democracy" to Cuba.
Assisted by the late Bernard Barnett, a major force in the Israeli lobby--the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or AIPAC--CANF set up its own PAC, Free Cuba, and the Cuban American Foundation, a lobbying arm for dispensing information and money. With White House support and his friendship with then-Vice President Bush's son Jeb, a Dade County resident, Mas could persuade Cuban Americans that he was their best voice in Washington. He could then parlay that role into more influence in Washington for a policy of continuing economic and political war against Cuba. CANF opposes all negotiations or indeed any contact with Cuba.
What about Cuban Americans who want to travel to Cuba, trade with Cuba, negotiate with Cuba, or establish diplomatic relations? If CANF is to be the one true voice of the exile community, other voices must be drowned out or reduced to static.
Already an influential radio commentator on two Spanish-language stations in Miami, Radio Mambí and Radio WQBA, Mas sought more avenues for his ideas. In September 1981, Allen and Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Enders announced plans for Radio Martí. One of Mas's pet ventures, this would involve the U.S. Government in broadcasting to Cuba at taxpayer expense. Congress approved the plan in 1983, and Radio Martí went on the air two years later.
In December 1987, Congress allocated the first money for TV Martí when Senator Chiles sponsored a feasibility study. Soon Congress was voting millions of dollars for this enterprise that began trying to broadcast to Cuba in 1990. As with all of Mas Canosa's exploits, these stations are models of self-promotion, linking the U.S. Government ever more closely to himself. The Presidential advisory board for both Radio Martí and TV Martí has had, since its inception, only one head--Mas Canosa.
Not that some voices haven't objected. Ernesto Betancourt is a prominent example. Appointed the first director of Radio Martí and militantly anti-Castro, he turned out not to favor tightening the trade embargo. He also opposed TV Martí because it violates international agreements. Fundamentally, he objected to use of Radio Martí as the voice of Mas. Betancourt was "reassigned" (and then resigned) in 1990.
CANF owns a radio station called La Voz de la Fundación (The Foundation's Voice), which it uses to attack not only the Cuban Government but also dissidents who favor dialogue with the Cuban Government. A typical message urges Cubans to get out the pans, take to the streets, and demand food, freedom, and the coming of Mas.
Emilio Milián, who used to work with WQBA radio, told CBS's 60 Minutes last fall that Mas demands either "applause or silence." When PBS scheduled a documentary about Mas and the Cuban American National Foundation in October, CANF's president, Francisco J. (Pepe) Hernández, tried to intimidate producer and writer Sandra Dickson. Three weeks later, Bill Clinton welcomed Hernández to a private meeting, along with Mas and a handful of other right-wing Cuban Americans from Florida, in a futile last-minute attempt to win enough votes from Cuban Americans to carry Florida.
When accused of buying influence, Mas responds repeatedly that the practice of U.S. democracy includes having a powerful lobby and being able to give "contributions" to political leaders. Where does CANF get its funds? First, it collects $5,000 to $10,000 (sometimes more) per year from its wealthy members. CANF also collects money from that same Congress to whose members it donates. In 1983, two years after the founding of CANF and at the initiative of the Reagan Administration, Congress created the National Endowment for Democracy to promote "democratic" institutions around the world. NED has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to CANF front groups--the European Coalition for Human Rights in Cuba, for example.
Since 1988, CANF and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service have maintained a unique arrangement, Project Exodus, which allows Cuban exiles from third countries to enter the United States if CANF sponsors them. The project increases the number of CANF supporters in the United States while coincidentally obtaining more grants of Government money.
Mas understands from his own experience that the practice of U.S. democracy involves covert operations, the underside of the law. He uses his underworld network to implement foreign policy against any group or nation allied in any substantive way with Cuba. His relationship with Cuban Americans Félix Rodríguez, Luis Posada, and Orlando Bosch is a case in point. Like Mas, all three were involved in the Bay of Pigs invasion and continued to work with the CIA.
Rodríguez brags about executing Che Guevara after he was wounded and captured in Bolivia by a CIA squad. In 1982 when rodríguez wanted to practice his "helicopter concept" against guerrillas in El Salvador, Mas introduced him to former Senator Stone, Reagan's special envoy to Central America. Rodríguez and Posada were the U.S. agents in charge of illegal aid to the contras in Nicaragua from Ilopango Air Base in El Salvador when Eugene Hasenfus's plane was shot down in 1987, exposing the operation and leading to the contra part of the Iran-contra scandal.
Posada and Bosch were involved in blowing up a Cubana passenger plane in 1976, killing all seventy-three people aboard. Bosch has also been convicted of such terrorist acts as a 1968 bazooka attack on a Polish ship in Miami and of sending death threats to the heads of France, Spain, and Italy for trading with Cuba. In 1983, Mas became a leader in a committee to intercede for the release of Bosch from a Venezuelan jail.
Did championing a convicted terrorist damage Mas's reputation? Not in Miami, which proclaimed "Orlando Bosch Day."
After Bosch was released in 1988, the U.S. Justice Department ordered his deportation, citing reports from the CIA and FBI about the enormity of his terrorism. At the time, CANF was supporting Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen for Congress to succeed the late Claude Pepper in his Miami seat in Congress. With Jeb Bush as her campaign manager and President Bush appearing on her behalf, she won and took the campaign for Bosch to Washington. Jeb Bush and Senator Connie Mack, Florida Republican, also campaigned for his release.
Bosch was freed from detention in 1990 by the Bush Administration. Bush was CIA director in 1976 when Bosch, at the time a CIA agent, founded Commanders of the United Revolutionary organizations (CORU) to attack Cuban targets globally.
Former Miami city commissioner Joe Carollo, defeated for re-election after he crossed Mas, called CANF "a little clique of millionaires who have made a very profitable business out of combating communism but who really want to take control of the city of Miami." Miami, however, is only the beginning.
Jorge Mas Canosa's imprint can be found in every area of U.S. foreign policy that has any relation to Cuba.
In June 1991, eight of Dade County's ten Cuban American state legislators held a news conference to urge President Bush to demand that the Soviet Union jump through three hoops in exchange for U.S. aid: suspend aid to Cuba, remove troops from Cuba, and help "eliminate" Fidel Castro. CANF paid for a 1989 visit to Miami by Boris Yeltsin and later opened an office in Moscow.
During the 1980s, Mas mobilized against Nicaragua's Sandinista government in the Cuban American community. Oliver North's diary refers to Mas Canosa's secretary, Inés Díaz, and to Jorge Mas next to a notation for $80,000.
In 1986, CANF sponsored U.S. appearances by Jonas Savimbi, head of the rebel group backed by South Africa and the United States in the Angolan civil war, where Cuban troops were fighting on the side of the government forces and against South African troops who were invading Angola and occupying Namibia.
In April 1990, African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela called Cuba an inspiration and praised its love for human rights and liberty. When Mandela visited Miami two months later, tens of thousands greeted him at an anti-apartheid rally, but local politicians retaliated for his praise of Cuba by refusing any official welcome, leading to a Black-led tourism boycott of Dade County that lasted three years.
For more than a decade, Mas has been able to control local officials in south Florida. One of his power tools is Miami Mayor Xavier Suárez, a CANF ally who has sat in the mayor's chair since 1985. CANF's politics dominate the City Commission. As one of Mas's associates told The Miami Herald, "I can't believe it. You sit there and watch him deal with commissioners and he treats them like chauffeurs." Then he added, "If I am quoted, I will be destroyed."
On the level of state government, Mas is chair of the Free Cuba Commission, which advises Florida's governor on policy toward Cuba. Every official understands the consequences of not agreeing with the commission's advice.
Both senators, Republican Mack and Democrat Graham, follow the dictates of CANF. After Ileana Ros-Lehtinen became the first Cuban American in Congress, CANF last November helped elect a second one from Florida, Republican Lincoln Díaz-Balart.
CANF's influence in Congress is not confined to the Florida delegation. In 1988, for example, CANF helped right-wing Democrat Joseph Lieberman unseat then-Republican Senator Lowell Weicker of Connecticut. Weicker wanted to improve relations with Cuba. Lieberman, on the other hand, has joined Graham, Mack and Fascell on CANF's Blue Ribbon Commission for the Economic Reconstruction of Cuba, of which Malcolm Forbes Jr. is honorary chair.
Mas pays special attention to the two congressional committees with the most direct influence on policy toward Cuba: the foreign-relations panels of each house. Dante Fascell, who chaired the house committee until he retired last year, has been in Mas's pocket consistently.
In November 1988, Democratic Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, chair of the Senate committee, and Torricelli, chair of the House subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs, separately visited Cuba. Upon his return, Pell called for "a more rational and normalized relationship with Cuba," and promoted dialogue. But in 1990, facing a tough re-election campaign, Pell met with CANF members and came out in support of tightening the trade embargo.
He specifically endorsed a proposal by Senator Mack to outlaw trade with Cuba by subsidiaries of U.S. companies operating in third countries (now part of the Cuban Democracy Act).
For his part, Torricelli told reporters after returning from Cuba that "living standards are not high, but the homelessness, hunger and disease that is witnessed in much of Latin America does not appear evident." Yet, by 1991, Torricelli was working with Mas to overthrow the Cuban Government.
After Florida, New Jersey has the largest number of Cuban Americans in the United States. CANF has built a Democratic political machine there with Torricelli as its key operative. Although he benefits from CANF's largesse, those contributions cannot be Torricelli's sole motivation. He is known for ambition, so speculation ranges from CANF's promise of help in any campaign for statewide or national office to the possibility of riches if CANF takes over Havana. Torricelli calls Mas his "good friend" who will go down in history as liberator of Cuba.
Torricelli collaborated with Mas to draft the Cuban Democracy Act with the goal of strangling the Cuban economy, including its exemplary health and educational systems, to bring about the downfall of Fidel Castro. Torricelli introduced this bill in February 1992 and made its passage his "highest priority." He refused to meet with constituents who opposed the legislation, though their position--shared with editorials in The Miami Herald, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and many other papers--was hardly that of a lunatic fringe.
When Senator Graham introduced the bill in the Senate, New Jersey's Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg shocked many constituents by immediately becoming a sponsor. Democratic Senator Bradley soon jumped on board as well, and has continued to serve Mas. After rushing to Clinton with Mas's objection to Mario Baeza's nomination, Bradley was undoubtedly surprised by an outpouring of support for Baeza, including endorsement by Cuban exiles. He backed off after the damage was done, insisting that he had not torpedoed Baeza but merely put forward his own nominee. Who was his nominee? Bradley's penchant for secrecy prevented an answer, but an aide told me that "she's from Peru."
Last November, Mas added another Congressional supporter from New Jersey when Robert Menéndez won a House seat. With Mas and Torricelli sharing the platform at a rally last year, Menéndez, supposedly a liberal Democrat, bellowed that while the Government "may allow Cuban publications into the country, we in Union City will not allow them in our schools and libraries!" Rapidly emerging as CANF's point man, Menéndez has now joined Torricelli on the House Foreign Relations Committee. With Senator Bradley singing his praises, he is also one of five newcomers who have been designated as Democratic whips, in charge of mobilizing other lawmakers behind the party's positions.
In January of this year, another key Democrat in New Jersey "wooed" (to quote The Jersey Journal) CANF. At an affair arranged by Torricelli, Governor Jim Florio, facing a difficult re-election bid, met with some 35 leading New Jersey CANF members to win their support.
Yet even as some politicians rush to join his political machine, Jorge Mas Canosa is running into trouble. The Bush Administration at first opposed Torricelli's bill, the Cuban Democracy Act, because it outlaws trade with Cuba by U.S. subsidiaries in third countries--a provision certain to offend allies such as Great Britain, France and Canada. Bush approved the legislation only after Clinton forced his hand by supporting it. In November, the U.N. General Assembly delivered an unprecedented blow to U.S. policy by voting 59 to 3 (Israel and Romania joined the United States) for a Cuban resolution calling for a repeal not only of the Cuban Democracy Act but of the entire U.S. trade embargo which has lasted three decades.
The controversy swirling around the Baeza nomination amounts to another setback for Mas Canosa. A specialist in privatization, hardly a left-wing activity, Baeza has years of experience in dealing with Latin American trade and economic issues. Mas suspected Baeza would be soft on Cuba because he has visited the island twice. In addition, Baeza is an Afro-Cuban and is not a CANF follower.
Mas's triumph in this arena alerted many people, including the Congressional Black Caucus, to his power to implement right-wing policies that hurt not only Cubans but people here in the United states. Addressing Bill Clinton directly, New York Democratic Representative Charles Rangel wrote in The Miami Herald on January 26, "Mr. President, do not let yourself be intimidated by the bullying tactics of a pressure group motivated by racism." He urged sending "a clear message that right-wing, racist pressure tactics will not be allowed to determine whom the president chooses to advise him on a vital area of foreign and economic policy."
In another open letter to President Clinton in February, Rangel pointed out that as "a compassionate nation, we should not be associated with the denial of humanitarian goods, such as food and medicine, to the Cuban people." Clinton replied that he believes "the Cuban Democracy Act is a step in the right direction," his standard reaction.
Rangel responded by introducing the "Free Trade with Cuba Act," legislation that would end the U.S. trade embargo. He is urging Congress "to change our Cuba policy to reflect the new world political realities as well as our own domestic economic priorities."
However, the Clintons themselves have a family connection to right-wing Cuban Americans. Hillary Rodham Clinton's brother Hugh is married to María Victoria Arias, a Republican who mobilized for Clinton in Florida with groups such as Cuban American Women for Clinton. Hugh Rodham and Hillary's other brother, Tony, also worked for Clinton among Republican Cubans. They expect more Cubans to switch parties now that Clinton has the Presidency.
But the worsening economic situation in Cuba is forcing a change in the Cuban exile community that will have far-reaching effects. Previously, the Cuban people had plenty of food and medicine; their health-care system has been internationally recognized as the best in the Third World. Now, however, many Cuban Americans are deeply concerned about their relatives' and friends' suffering under the U.S. embargo promoted by CANF. A popular sign carried in demonstrations against the embargo asks, TORRICELLI, DO YOU HAVE FAMILY IN CUBA?
These demonstrations are part of a movement in open defiance of Jorge Mas Canosa and the bullying tactics of CANF. Despite a snowstorm last February 26, hundreds of Cuban Americans gathered in Washington to protest the embargo. Andrés Gómez, head of the Antonio Maceo Brigade, presented a petition against the embargo signed by 35,000 Cuban Americans from Miami. As Patricia Duarte wrote in New York Newsday on February 9, "If Baeza does favor opening up a relationship with Cuba, he's not alone. I suspect many Cubans of my generation feel the same way--though they may remain silent for fear of retribution from CANF. And that is a tragedy."
CANF's tactics have even alienated one of Mas Canosa's closest colleagues, Armando Valladares. After months of simmering conflict, a definitive split occurred when CANF scheduled a night of prayer for the people of Cuba on May 24 of this year, the same night the Valladares Foundation was hosting a fund-raising concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington. In April, Valladares resigned from CANF's Blue Ribbon Commission and sent this message to CANF: "Please do not use my name as a member of the committee for any reception or activity affiliated to the Cuban American National Foundation."
Mas continues preparations for taking his brand of democracy to Cuba. CANF has founded Misión Martí, its version of the Peace Corps, with missioners trained in a semester-long course on how to manage post-Castro Cuba for capitalism. Cuban Americans have graduated from sessions in Florida, New York and New Jersey, and are ready to serve when activated.
Mas is a master of pulling strings, a puppeteer who parlays money into influence and influence into money and power. In a current money-raising, power-grabbing gambit, he is collecting $25,000 each from businesspeople who want to be on the first ship to Havana "after the fall of Castro." Backers include the huge investment banking company of Lazard Freres headed by Felix Rohatyn (a major contributor to the Clinton Presidential campaign), Citibank, Bell South, General Cigar, Hyatt Hotels, and the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, all looking forward to "returning democracy to Cuba."
When did Cuba have this democracy which can be returned? In 1898, when the United States intervened in the Cuban War of Independence to turn Cuba into a neo-colony? In 1901, when a U.S.-arranged election was won by a counterpart Mas often cites, Tomás Estrada Palma, who soon had to call for U.S. military intervention? In 1952, when the United States supported a coup by General Fulgencio Batista just in time to stop elections?
A right-wing multimillionaire at the head of Cuba's government would of course please U.S. financiers. But on the island,
few--even among the dissidents--want Jorge Mas Canosa for president. It was, after all, the reign of men like Mas that drove the Cuban people to revolution.
Jane Franklin's latest book is Cuba and the United States: A Chronological History.