Miami Cubans: Patriarch's death opens door for dialogue with Castro

Jorge Mas Canosa, the anti-communist leader of the Cuban-American community in the US, died in Miami on Sunday. Phil Davison asks whether this will affect the Cuban exiles' stand towards Castro's regime or US policy towards Havana.
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The Independent Online
He was Fidel Castro's nemesis, the leader of Cuba's exiles and dedicated to the overthrow of the island's Communist leader. He had hoped to return to his homeland in glory, perhaps to become president once Castro had died or been ousted.

On Sunday, Jorge Mas Canosa, founder and chairman of the powerful Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) lobby group, died in Miami without returning to the island he fled as a 21-year-old in 1960. His old Communist enemy, now 71, is, of course, very much alive and still in control.

Mas Canosa had arrived penniless and built a construction and communications empire valued in the hundreds of millions of pounds. He had been ill for almost a year. But his death still stunned the 2 million Cuban exiles in the US, most in the Miami area, and plunged them into mourning.

The question is will Mas Canosa's hard line against Castro prevail among Cuban exiles? Or will the minority moderates gain strength in pressing for dialogue with the Cuban leader?

Mas Canosa's deputy at the CANF, Alberto Hernandez, who was his physician, is likely to head the organisation as interim leader until elections are held next July. But once the mourning is done, Cuban exiles are likely to engage in much soul-searching. Most still support trying to freeze Castro from power but they are increasingly conscious of the fact - symbolised by the fact that Castro has outlived Mas Canosa - that the hard-line policy has been unsuccessful.

Some Cuban-Americans loved Mas Canosa. Most certainly approved of his hard-line stance, aimed at tightening the screws on Castro until he could no longer survive. But a growing minority had criticised his intransigence.

Most exiles see no radical shift with the ANF founder gone. A recent poll showed that while the younger generation was critical of the hard- line stance on cultural ties with Cuba, most backed the political hard line, including a continued US embargo. Mas Canosa tried to prevent Cuban musicians from playing here, or even Cuban groups' songs from being played on radio stations. Most younger exiles oppose that line.

Stripped of Mas Canosa's aggressiveness, the CANF may ease its campaign against moderates. Those who have spoken out in favour of dialogue with Castro have been ostracised, or even attacked. A Cuban woman lawyer who kissed Castro on the cheek at a reception in Havana was turned into a pariah by Mas Canosa supporters.

With the community's most influential figure gone, the moderate voice is likely to be heard. Embodying that voice is Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, who fought as a revolutionary commander with Castro, was later jailed for 22 years for opposing Communism and came to the US a few years ago.

Despite his long imprisonment, Mr Gutierrez Menoyo returned to Havana two years ago to talk to Castro and now, from Miami, pushes dialogue as the best way to edge the communist leader towards democracy. Yesterday he called Mas Canosa a dynamic leader but added pointedly that he would have liked to speak to him "in a politically civilised climate".

Mas Canosa's absence may have a major effect in Washington. "He was one of the most influential lobbyists in the country," a friend who asked not to be named said yesterday. "He knew everyone, he spoke good English, he knew the ins and outs on Capitol Hill. Many of the others on the CANF simply don't have the English."

"Without Jorge's pressure, Bill Clinton would never have changed his stance last year on the Helms-Burton bill," he said.

Mr Clinton had vetoed the bill, putting tight restrictions on foreign companies dealing with Cuba, until Cuban MiG fighters shot down two light aircraft, killing four Cuban exiles, over the Florida straits last year. At Mas Canosa's urging, Mr Clinton decided to back the bill.

With Mas Canosa gone, many non-Cubans in Miami predict a backlash against Cuban-Americans. They have become critical of the prevalence of the Spanish language in the Miami area and say Cuban exiles enjoy preferential treatment in the job market over immigrants from other nations as well as lifetime residents.

Obituary, page 19