Obituary: Jorge Mas Canosa

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The Independent Online
Jorge Mas Canosa, businessman and campaigner: born Santiago, Cuba 21 September 1939; married (two sons, one daughter); died Miami, Florida 23 November 1997.

Jorge Mas Canosa fled Fidel Castro's revolution as a young man without a penny in his pocket and became the Cuban leader's arch-enemy in exile. He built the Miami-based Cuban-American National Foundation into one of the most powerful lobby groups in the United States, strongly influencing successive US presidents' policy towards the Communist Caribbean island.

Critics of the hardline US policy towards Cuba believe Mas Canosa has long been its de facto architect, imposing his will in return for campaign contributions and key Florida votes at election time. Some critics believed he had hoped to become President of Cuba if Castro's Communist system ever collapsed but it seemed unlikely Cubans on the island, after suffering the hardships of the US embargo and Castro's economic mistakes, would ever roll out the red carpet to what they consider the "fat cats" of Miami.

In 1961 Mas Canosa took part in the disastrous CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles, aimed at overthrowing Castro, and served briefly in the US Army. Since leaving Cuba in 1960, he had also built up a communications empire which left him with an estimated net worth of between pounds 70m and pounds 160m.

His death is likely to cause major reverberations in the exiled Cuban- American community in and around Miami, increasingly split over whether to follow Mas Canosa's hardline approach to Castro, including support for the longtime total US embargo, or to seek a dialogue which might push the Cuban leader towards democracy.

Jorge Mas Canosa was born in the eastern Cuban city of Santiago in 1939, the son of a veterinary surgeon serving in the Cuban army. Concerned by the guerrilla uprising led by the young Fidel Castro in the mid-Fifties, his father sent him to North Carolina in the US to study.

Like many Cubans who believed Castro's promises of greater democracy, Mas Canosa returned to the island as soon as Castro had ousted the dictator Fulgencio Batista in January 1959. But he quickly became disillusioned with the bearded revolutionary's Marxist direction and returned to the US in 1960, never to return to his homeland. He became a US citizen in the early Eighties.

Settling in Miami, he built up his savings by washing dishes, selling shoes, delivering milk and unloading cargo ships, at the same time organising an anti-Castro resistance movement. Initially, he bought wepons and supported armed struggle but he later distanced himself from armed anti- Castro groups such as Alpha-66, and pushed political and diplomatic action against the Cuban leader.

Within a decade, he had built up a small construction and communications company which laid cables and erected telephone poles for the Southern Bell telephone company in Florida. That business eventually became the MasTec company, now headed by his 34-year-old son Jorge Junior and one of the biggest Hispanic-owned companies in the US, with widespread interests in Spain and Latin America.

Mas Canosa was the driving force behind Radio Marti, a US-funded radio station, now expanded into television, which beams news into Cuba to give islanders information beyond that available from Castro's state-controlled media. His lobbying was instrumental in seeing the anti-Castro Helms-Burton bill passed in Congress and in pressing President Bill Clinton to change his stand and support the bill after four Cuban-Americans in two light aircraft were shot down by Cuban Mig fighters over the Florida straits in February 1996.

Aggressive and abrasive, he once challenged the mayor of Miami to a duel, suggesting guns or swords. The mayor defused the situation by proposing water pistols and the duel never took place.

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