For forty years, U.S. national security apparatchiks have tried to exact imperial revenge against Fidel Castro, the man who should hold the Guinness record for disobedience. From almost the day Fidel Castro led his triumphant rebeldes into Havana in January 1959, the U.S. government has employed routine terrorism against the Cuban revolution; in addition, the United States has tried to embargo Cuba to death and strangle it by any means, short of full-scale U.S. military invasion. One Cuban exile took advantage of this climate, and the space the government created for anti-Castro mischief, to mount a prolonged campaign of naked terror, and astute political manipulation of the highest levels of the U.S. government. His aim was to replace Castro as president of Cuba and substitute capitalism for socialism on the island.
I read the news, on November 23, 1997, that Jorge Mas Canosa had died. Mas emerged as a modern Horatio Alger, who learned how to acquire power and wealth in a uniquely American way. He was one of the few men clever enough to combine the tactics of a Ku Klux Klan good old boy with the pragmatic lobbying techniques of the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee's (AIPAC), thereby grabbing national prominence and dictating U.S. policy toward Cuba.
Mas's formula amounted to a one-two combination in the U.S. political ring. By getting himself or his cronies appointed or elected to local water, sewer, utility, road and electoral commissions - much as the Klan did in the South until the late 1960s - Mas and his Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), and its various political and business spinoffs, built an empire. Mas could award contracts and jobs, do favors and act like an old-style political ward boss. This Godfather-like role made him into a local, and then national, persona - a business-political superstar. Thousands of Cuban exiles owed him for bringing in their relatives, resettling them, getting them jobs, apartments, or loam. Thousands more had at least a vicarious investment in this hombre fuerte who knew how to work the American system.
By the 1980s, Mas had achieved national recognition. He had learned how to intimidate and buy strategically placed members of Congress, and even presidents, on Cuba policy. He put large donations into their campaign coffers and then used them for policy decisions, photo ops, and promotional quotes. For twenty years, Mas exercised a singular influence over U.S.-Cuba policy, and he let everyone know about it (and then some). Indeed, he learned how to step forth and boldly take credit even when none was due him.
Mas was the son of a Batista army veterinarian, and his life became a modern American "success" story. In 1956, he became president of the Free Mason Youth (Asosiacion Jovenes Esperanaza de la Fraternidad), which he quit just months after the revolution triumphed. In January 1959, he joined a right wing Catholic group.(1) The revolutionary tribunals that investigated offenses by the Batista regime acquitted Mas's father, an officer, of any wrongdoing. Mas, however, got caught for counterrevolutionary plotting with his Catholic group. He escaped from Cuba in July 1960 by using a false identity.
When he arrived in Miami, Mas, like most of the young exile men, saw U.S.-backed violence as the only means available for the overthrow of the revolutionary government. He later modified, but never abandoned, this methodology. The young Mas joined the CIA's Bay of Pigs invasion expedition, but never set foot on the island. The CIA assigned him to a decoy ship.
After the April 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, Mas turned to radio, doing biweekly anti-Castro broadcasts into Cuba over the CIA's Radio SWAN. He married Irma, his high school sweetheart. To earn his living he began delivering milk; subsequently he sold shoes in Miami's Little Havana.
In 1963, the CIA offered a select group of Bay of Pigs veterans a chance to enroll in an intelligence training course at Fort Benning, Georgia. Mas met two Cuban exiles there, Felix Rodriguez and Luis Posada Carrilles, who became his lifetime buddies after undergoing this special training with him. Like other Bay of Pigs veterans selected as "special cases," Mas received a commission as second lieutenant, but - like many of his compatriots - quit the army when he discovered that the U.S. government had no immediate plans to invade Cuba.(2)
Following his 1963 Fort Benning experience, Mas met Jose "Pepin" Bosch, kingpin of the Bacardi rum family, and abandoned his shoe-salesman career in Little Havana. How does a former shoe salesman with little record of accomplishment get into millionaire Bosch's league? Did the CIA suggest that Bosch back Mas, yet another among many Cuban exiles plotting terrorist raids against Cuba, as a leader of RECE (Representacion Cubana en el Exilio)? Former House Assassinations Committee investigator Gaeton Fonzi says that the CIA, not Bosch, financed RECE. Fonzi cites an FBI document that has Mas delivering $5,000 to Luis Posada, then a CIA contract agent, to blow up a Soviet or Cuban ship docked in Veracruz, Mexico.(3)
Pepin Bosch ostensibly signed the $10,000 monthly checks to start and maintain RECE, and hand-picked Mas and other RECE leaders. But how would the businessman know who would make the most appropriate directors of an exile group that had violence as a mission?
During the late 1960s, Mas claimed participation in several terrorist operations, including a machine-gun strafing of a Havana residential area. Mas also tried to retrofit some Second World War vintage B-26s to bomb Cuban oil refineries. He even got involved with plans to send missile-carrying speed boats near the Cuban coast to fire at "strategic" targets. These missions didn't materialize - or failed to meet their objectives.
Mas continued to support commando tactics well into the 1970s. An FBI agent who monitored anti-Castro operations in the 1960s confirmed that "it would have been difficult to mount terrorist operations without CIA help." Still, veterans from Miami's terrorist wars found that Mas's oral zeal far exceeded his penchant for direct action in the 1960s. Others say he was just another "prize bullshitter."(4)
Mas maintained his terrorist associations, but simultaneously courted the advice of Pepin Bosch and his Agency contacts. They opened business doors for what turned out to be a lucrative career. In 1968, Vicente Rubiera, one of the RECE Board members, arranged for Mas to meet two like-minded exiles, Senores Iglesias (Church) and Torres (Towers), who named their Puerto Rico-based construction business after themselves. The two had worked for ITT before setting up their own construction business.(5)
Mas became Miami branch manager for Iglesias y Torres. Through his connections among militant Cuban exiles and Miami businessmen, Mas met E.B. McKinney, Southern Bell's general manager for south Florida. This began a business relationship that would continue for decades and earn Mas millions.
In September 1969, Mas renamed the company Church and Tower. He bought the business in 1971 for a mere $50,000. The two original business partners disappeared from the scene. The money came from an account (which was not in Mas's name) at Republic National Bank. In 1994, Mas formed MasTec and offered stock in the new company. His own share of the company when he died was estimated at more than half a billion dollars.(7) Mas went on to have several offshore accounts in countries such as Panama. A year after the purchase of Church and Tower, he signed a contract, worth $1 million, to lay, cable for Southern Bell. Mas later formed several other companies.(6)
By 1970, Mas Canosa had begun to develop name recognition. Some knew him as the man who edited the RECE newsletter. But Mas had good coaches who taught him how to make it on the American scene. He began to get himself and his cronies on boards and commissions, through which he made business friends, and awarded or won contracts. He also grew wealthy.
Weighing Public Relations Against Violence
Mas's new advisers convinced him that wealthy people in America had developed tried and true methods to persuade local and national public officials to respond favorably to their political initiatives. Flatter them, endorse them, hint at intimidation and, most important, buy them: this is the best road to political power.
But he faced several obstacles on his road to political heights. By the early 1970s, a number of Cuban exiles in the U.S.-based anti-Castro movement began to feel frustrated. On one hand, the U.S. government that had once promised definitive action had done little to make Castro uncomfortable since Kennedy's death in 1963. Yes, the embargo existed, but Soviet aid seriously undermined its effects on Cuba. Lyndon Johnson supplied properly militant rhetoric, but authorized no plans to invade the island or even to establish a serious terrorist war against the Castro regime.
Until the 1959 Cuban Revolution, U.S. presidents had never permitted cases of blatant disobedience to go unpunished. But Johnson and Nixon had suffered through a decade of painful humiliation in Vietnam. And neither had much appetite to take on Cuba.
Like their ideological counterparts on the far right, the militant anti-Castro exiles saw the Soviet cause triumphing in third-world countries - especially in Africa, after the fall of the Portuguese dictatorship. Most galling to them, Cuba played a blatant role in helping these fledgling Marxist-nationalist governments to assume and keep power. In addition, Castro appeared to have circumvented Washington's campaign to isolate him. In the early 1970s, Barbados and Trinidad-Tobago had opened air and commercial relations with Cuba.
In 1972, in response to frustration and lack of U.S. government initiative, a group of exiles (with the U.S. government's approval) undertook a series of desperate operations. They used a large commercial vessel provided by the Babun family (owner of sugar mills in Florida and confiscated property in Cuba) to shield rapid speed-boats that raced to the Cuban coastline, fired missiles or machine guns at supposedly strategic targets, and then fled back to the protection of the mother ship in international waters. Mas Canosa danced gingerly on the periphery of these actions, but always claimed some credit for them.
As terrorism against Cuba escalated, to little avail, parallel violence arose inside the exile community. The frustration that militant exiles felt over the U.S. government's relative inaction was compounded by the so-called anti-Castro leaders empty terrorist rhetoric.
In April 1974, a small group composed mainly of members of the Cuban Nationalist Movement (CNM), a Falangist offshoot, calling themselves ZERO, took credit for the murder of exile leader Jose Elias de la Torriente. Orlando Bosch, a psychotic Cuban pediatrician to whom Mas Canosa always remained loyal, fled Miami after police implicated him in the hit. Bosch, who later proudly claimed credit for the 1976 bombing of a Cubana airliner, stated that "Torriente's death benefitted the Cuban exile community."
Mas, beginning to understand public relations outside of the narrow Cuban community in Florida, lifted his "indiguant voice in protest over such a fearful act."(8)
But Mas was closer to the CNM than he let on. According to the FBI, in 1970 the CNM bombed the Fifth Avenue Cinema, where my film, Fidel, was to open. In 1973, they bombed the Center for Cuban Studies in New York, almost killing its director. Other exile leaders went down in 1974. Arturo Rodriguez Vives was assassinated in April in New York. In May, assassins eliminated Christian Democrat leader Ernesto Rodriguez for "being too soft on Castro." In August 1974, Hector Diaz Limonte, the secretary of the Organization of the Nationalist Cuban Movement, was strangled in Union City, New Jersey.
These guys were small potatoes, however. Known in Cuba as The Tiger of Oriente, Rolando Masferrer had run an army of thugs in eastern Cuba, until Batista fell in January 1959. Then, he and his fellow brutes fled to the welcoming arms of the U.S. government - but not before transferring his money.
In Miami, under the pretext of running terrorist missions against Castro, Masferrer ran rackets, just as he had done in Cuba. The Tiger excoriated Mas and other potential rivals in his Spanish-language newspaper.
In late October 1975, Masferrer's bodyguards dragged Ignacio Novo, a CNM heavy, from under Masferrer's car and, according to an FBI agent, "put his head in the toilet for a couple of hours to find out what he was doing there." A few days later, Masferrer's car exploded. The Tiger was dead.
FBI agents suspected Mas Canosa in the Masferrer bombing, but lacked sufficient evidence to charge him. Who benefitted, a former agent asked, from Masferrer's disappearance more than Mas Canosa? With The Tiger out of his way, Mas could begin his rise to pre-eminence in the exile community, as the man who finally led an effective campaign against Castro.
After fifteen years in exile, Mas had begun to realize that terrorism alone could not bring down the Cuban revolution - although violence always remained axiomatic to his thinking. Mas cautiously began to develop a two-pronged strategy for exile politics. Prestigious men in Miami still had their cojones invested in terrorism, which meant that Mas had to move cautiously, lest he alienate himself from the super-militants.
The assassins had killed their own former associates. But they had proved singularly ineffective in their attempts to get the real target. In July 1975, Senator George McGovern (D-SD) disclosed that the CIA had made at least twenty-four assassination attempts on Castro. In August, members of eleven exile groups held a press conference at Washington's Dupont Plaza Hotel, to take credit for the attempts. Mas, representing RECE, stood with the other heavies and boasted proudly of his own role in attempting to kill Castro on numerous occasions.(9)
In 1978, three years later, a reporter with the Miami Herald questioned him on the use of violence. Mas replied "Am I non-violent? No, I am pro-violence." But anti-Castro exiles, he explained, could also use the U.S. political system, avail themselves of political power, and accumulate resources to wage a two-front war against the Cuban revolution. "We had to stop the commando raids and concentrate on influencing public opinion and governments," he declared.(10) "We can defeat a Communist tyranny in our sphere of influence without shooting one bullet," Mas boasted years later. "If our people had had this knowledge of how the American system works in 1961, the Bay of Pigs would never have failed."(11)
But exile-initiated violence against Cuba proceeded apace in the mid- and late 1970s. The internecine wars to control exile militancy also continued. In the late 1970s, CNM gunmen hit Eulalio Negrin in Union City, New Jersey. Negin had entered a group of exiles holding a dialogue with Castro - and then bragged about it. On September 21, 1976, CNM thugs working for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's secret police assassinated Orlando Letelier in Washington, DC. Ronni Moffitt also died in the bombing. In 1978, CNM assassins slew a low-ranking Cuban UN diplomat in New York and narrowly missed blowing up Cuba's UN Ambassador as well.
For Mas Canosa, this wave of murders also meant that most of his rivals for leadership inside the Cuban exile community had fallen. By this time, the multi-millionaire Mas had become a prominent player in Miami, Dade County, and, indeed, in Florida politics. As he developed a public profile, he eschewed the language of violence, and simultaneously began to build political bridges, mostly to the Republican heavyweights, but to some strategically placed Democrats as well. The November 1980 elections were like God's blessing for Mas.
Public Relations & Reagan
Within weeks after Ronald Reagan took office, Mas met with sympathetic National Security Adviser Richard Allen, who advised him to learn how to lobby from AIPAC. The Reaganites, ever anxious to privatize, found in Mas a man idealogically congenial and, more importantly, willing to "buy" the Cuba piece of U.S. foreign policy. How wonderful to have an outside group, able to influence members of Congress, demanding policies that coincided with the Reagan "revolution" - which called for a war against all communists, including Castro.
CANF Is Born
Shortly after their meeting with Allen, Mas and company announced the birth of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF). Lawyers quickly secured tax-exemption for the new entity and built alongside it a political action committee (PAC), to place money strategically, as well as an "educational" (read: lobbying) arm to round out its functions.
Under Allen's guidance, Mas and his cohorts met with AIPAC organizers who, Allen had assured them, were the most effective privatized policy gang in the country. The Israeli lobbyists, masters of congressional intimidation and payoffs, mentored the untutored Cuban, showing him how to pick his congressional targets well. They taught him to pick those who needed money, publicity, or the removal of a threatening opponent in the upcoming election from the slate.
But what was their legislative agenda? Jorge Mas recalled those heady days in the early 1960s when he broadcast anti-Castro messages into Cuba over CIA Radio SWAN. Why not do it again? Cuban exiles could control a radio station that would beam anti-Castro propaganda into Cuba, and U.S. taxpayers would foot the bill. The idea evolved quickly under the Reagan administration's ideological guidelines, which became the sine qua non for policy-making.
By the early 1980s, Mas felt like a veteran lobbyist. In 1974, by using the logic of about $50,000 in campaign contributions, he had helped convince Senator Richard Stone (D-FL), to become a point man for anti-Castro resolutions and, eventually, legislation. Stone saw no liability in following Mas's anti-Castro wishes, since few of his constituents objected to anti-Castro resolutions in the U.S. Senate.
When Stone lost in 1980, Mas Canosa promptly switched his large contribution to the campaign coffers of newly elected Republican Senator Paula Hawkins (R-FL) who, in turn, obediently introduced the Radio Marti bill. When he first read the proposed legislation, Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) called it "baloney."
Imagine Congress funding a radio station that broadcast news, music and other shows to Cuba when the Voice of America (and commercial Florida radio) already reached radio receivers throughout the island, giving them news, music, comedy, commercials and even militant anti-Castro propaganda.
State Department officials worried that, should Radio Marti go forward, Fidel would cancel a planned prisoner release and an immigration accord that they had painstakingly reached over the course of years.
Legal scholars argued that such transmission violated international rules, U.S. allies pleaded that such a move would set a bad precedent, and some Latin American diplomats even said the dreaded "i" word (imperialism) in public, all to no avail. Jorge Mas Canosa paid the right Senators and House members, successfully hawked the media, and threatened weak political links - should they not vote his way.
With the first transmission into Cuba in 1982, over Castro's angry objections, Mas toasted his own success. In 1985, he began to use his post as chairman of the president's Advisory Board on Cuba Broadcasting to dictate radio policy.
For Mas, Radio Marti was an instrument in a war, with himself as commanding general of propaganda. Like a military commander, he showed little interest in notions of either free speech (in terms of what went on the air) or fairness (in personnel policies). Those who dissented from his dictates received punishment, including firing. Despite public airings of grievances at Radio Marti, Mas prevailed and endured on the Marti board for more than nine years.
Mas loyalists at Radio Marti spied on staff members they thought disloyal to the Chairman. For more than a decade, Mas's views went out over the air and into Cuba. His name was mentioned more than any other Cuban. Mas accused those who questioned the propriety of his tactics of harboring communist sympathies.
Mas collided not only with ideological enemies, but with anyone who challenged him. This included Armando Valladares, a long-time political prisoner who had allegedly written poems in prison and stood for extreme right-wing ideals. Mas had Valladares appointed co-founder of the foundation, and helped him become chief of Radio Marti. He later forced Valladares out in a bitter fight.
In November 1986, Annette Lopez-Munoz, a Radio Marti reporter, asked President Reagan two questions that the President had difficulty answering. National Security Council staff members called Mas about this "transgression." Lopez-Munoz was immediately transferred and threatened with termination.
Voice of America Chief Joe Duffy privately claimed to detest everything Mas stood for, but lacked the courage to confront him - as did Duffy's boss Bill Clinton.
Mas the Puppetmaster
Mas located a vulnerable Democrat to use as his point man. Senator Ernest Hollings (D-SC) faced two problems in his re-election bid in 1986: money and a formidable Republican opponent. Jorge Mas helped solve both problems. Free Cuba PAC money flowed into Hollings coffers: $5,000 from the PAC, and sizeable supplements from foundation directors. Over the years, Hollings has pulled in more than $100,000 from the Mas gang. Mas also used his clout with the Republican shakers to convince the opponent to withdraw. Hollings won the election and he owed Mas big-time.
As head of the Senate Appropriations Committee in 1989, Hollings bulldozed a path for TV Marti, which holds the record for nine successive years of television transmission without ever managing to hit its target audience. Castro has effectively jammed the transmissions from their onset. Indeed, it is estimated that more Cubans have watched test patterns than the programs generated by TV Marti.
"That is a tribute to Mas Canosa's political savvy," said one disgruntled member of Congress, after TV Marti received another year's funding and poverty programs were drastically reduced.
Hollings had no investment in Cuba policy when Mas approached him, but Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Claiborne Pell (D-RI) had taken a consistent anti-embargo stance and supported dialogue with Cuba.
Mas waited until the appropriate moment to have his "meeting" with Pell, who was in the midst of a 1990 re-election fight with Republican Claudine Schneider. Mas told the aging Senator that he felt compelled as a good American to release photos of Pell posing with Fidel Castro to the media. The next morning Pell switched his line on Cuba.
Mas Canosa paid off promptly to those who did his bidding. Florida Senators Bob Graham and Connie Mack have received over $30,000 in Mas-connected PAC money since 1982. Similarly, Florida Republican Representative Ileana Ros Lehtinan has taken more than $100,000 since 1982 and Lincoln Diaz Balart got more than $30,000. Democrat Corinne Mack received more than $20,000 since 1992.
Congressional staff members took Mas's calls and got them quickly answered. Mas enjoyed special relations with Democratic Senators Bob Torricelli (D-NJ), who got more than $35,000, and, of course, with Republican Jesse Helms of North Carolina.
As Mas strutted through the halls of Congress, members showed him proper deference. Indeed, that's how one should act towards one's patron. Mas, not known for subtlety, behaved as if he owned them, which, in some cases, he did.
He didn't always get his way, however.
In 1995, I saw him swagger into a congressional hearing room, surrounded by a beefy, five-man entourage. As Mas shed his elegantly tailored camel's hair coat, the accompanying sharks did the same. He sat. They sat. He squirmed, smoothing the expensive knit of his custom-made suit. He made himself comfortable in the chair. They did the same. Mas bit his nails. One of the thugs raised his hand to his mouth.
Was Charlie Chaplin directing this scene for a remake of the "Great Dictator"? Or was it Charley Rangel (D-NY) who flattered Mas into the witness chair? (And then set him up.) After listing a lengthy string of his virtues and accomplishments, Rangel asked him about allegations of his tendency to use violence against his opponents.
"There's no evidence to support that," retorted a visibly shaken Mas.
"No, Mr. Mas," Rangel cooed. "Don't say that."
"I'm tired of hearing that charge," Mas shouted. "No one's been able to find any evidence ...."
"No, Mr, Mas. You're not in court here. No one accused you. Just say it's not true."
Mas calmed down, although he showed some discomfort when Rangel had him sit alongside the Reverend Jesse Jackson during the testimony. After Jackson had delivered his anti-embargo testimony, Rangel coaxed Mas into inviting Jackson to meet with him on the issue.
Mas, ever the macho host, extended a warm invitation to the Reverend, promising him hospitality Cuban-style. Jackson accepted and Mas somehow convinced Jackson to pose for a Miami Herald photo with him. Fidel Castro later commented that "I thought Jackson would have more principle than to pose for a photo with that fascist criminal."(12)
Mas thought that Rangel, the representative from Harlem, was a buddy of Fidel Castro. In 1996, Mas threw money at Adam Clayton Powell who contested, unsuccessfully, for Rangel's seat.
During the Reagan-Bush years, however, Mas joined a host of right-wing initiatives. He worked hard for Jonas Savimbi in Angola, the Contras in Nicaragua, and Major Roberto D'Aubbison and his ultra-right forces in El Salvador.
By the late 1980s, Mas also had learned to suck up to foreign heads of state who had taken anti-Castro positions. He met with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Argentine President Carlos Menem, and Spain's Jose Mafia Aznar, before and after Aznar's defeat of Felipe Gonzalez's Social Democrats.
Mas and the Miami Herald
The debonair and democratic facade that Mas wore abroad didn't apply in Miami, where the Chairman ruled on Cuba policy. So when, in 1992, the Herald questioned a Mas-backed initiative, Mas went ballistic. He accused the Herald of being a Castro front and initiated an "I don't believe 'The Herald'" campaign, plastering buses and billboards with that slogan in Spanish, distributing bumper-stickers, and attempting to organize a boycott.
Herald executives received death threats. Vandals smeared excrement on its sidewalk vending machines. Americas Watch wrote a lengthy report, "Dangerous Dialogue," on the situation, labeling it a violation of free speech rights in Miami.
Human rights monitors documented the systematic campaign of violence and intimidation waged against dissenting political voices in Miami's Cuban community. Although no one found Mas holding the proverbial smoking gun for the various kinds of repression practiced against dissenters, the report's authors felt confident enough to ask the government to reexamine its support of National Endowment for Democracy (NED) funding to CANF and other support offered to Radio Marti.
The Almost Duel with Carollo
The charming, warm, generous, democratic Jorge Mas that U.S. and foreign heads of state knew, the immigrant success story incarnate, had a darker side. He became impatient to the extreme when lesser beings disobeyed or, worse, disrespected him. In 1985, his younger brother Ricardo left Jorge's business venture. The older Mas claimed the younger had taken money from Church and Tower and deposited it in his own retirement fund. The younger Mas challenged Jorge about who rightfully should control the money. Mas came to Ricardo's house, beat the upstart, and threw him through a plate glass window. A judge subsequently awarded Ricardo $245,000 for breach of contract.
Then Ricardo sued his older brother for saying nasty things about him in public. In 1990, a Miami jury ruled in Ricardo's favor. Jorge's son added to the libel by accusing his uncle of lying and being interested only in money, exploiting Jorge Mas's public position to get ahead. The court awarded Ricardo Mas $900,000 in damages.
In another episode, Mas employee Eduardo Nuñez threatened to shoot another employee. Mas visited Nuñez, accompanied by bodyguard Marcelino Moreno, and waved a gun at Nuñez who, understandably threatened, reacted angrily. Mas told Moreno to shoot his own gun to "scare" Nuñez. The bullet hit Nuñez, who later collected some money for his discomfort.
In 1986, City, Commissioner Joe Carollo claimed that Mas had used his contacts and connections to push city officials into awarding him a $130 million contract. Mas called Carollo a coward and challenged him to a duel. Carollo accepted, but "only with water pistols" so Mas could cool off.
These unpleasant incidents tainted Mas's new "statesman" image. Behind his facade of respectability, observers noted an inextinguishable propensity on the part of Mas and his cohorts to return to violence as the ultimate means of dealing with Castro in Cuba and dissenters in south Florida.
Between May 1987 and June 1990, thirteen bombs exploded in the Miami area. The targets were shippers that sent cargo to Cuba; travel agencies arranging trips there; homes of anti-embargo Cubans; and the Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture, which dared to exhibit paintings by artists living on the island.
Who ordered these bombings? The police caught no one, but a retired FBI agent, with a smirk on his face, pointed the finger at Mas, whom he called "the grand intimidator."
Jorge Mas Canosa's not-too-well-hidden goal in life went beyond accumulating multi-millions and being numero uno in the Cuban exile community. His aim extended beyond punishing Castro and overthrowing the revolution. Jorge Mas, former shoe salesman and milk delivery man, was a minor world player. He wanted to return to Cuba and become its president. But, although he suffered from a bloated ego and projected an exaggerated self-image, controlling shadows always lurked nearby - men who had more money, more power, more access to the intestines of U.S. National Security power.
Does this help explain why Mas never really let go of violence as a means toward that end? Play out the scenarios. Until the 1990s, Mas's most likely return ticket to Cuba rested on the backs of the U.S. Marines. And, unless Mas and company could provoke a U.S. military response, there was little chance that a sitting U.S. president would make such an aggressive move.
Ironically, the official Cuban line on Mas Canosa (as stated in El Chairman Soy Yo) paints him as a petty villain. This is unfair to a man with visions of epically evil proportions. His strategy was to manipulate the United States into a shooting war with the Castro government. Not a foolish idea, since it appeared to be the only viable route to his ultimate goal of ruling the island.
The USSR Collapses and Mas Sees His Chance
In the 1990s, as if some magic fairy had answered Mas's prayers, the Soviet Bloc began to crumble. Without Soviet support, the Cuban economy went into a tailspin. The population suffered from shortages of almost everything. Rafters by the thousands began to head north to Florida.
Mas called economists and businessmen together to make a plan for a post-Castro economy. He launched a company that would control investment in the next (his) Cuba. Indeed, he demanded that those who wanted to do business in Cuba over the next few years had to go through him - for a fee, of course. Mas swaggered ever more exaggeratedly in public. He beamed before the cameras. His goal was in sight.
His public relations sense told him to downplay ambition when asked about his presidential aspirations, so he affected a humble pose. Not me, he lied. But Mas Canosa moved like a typical caudillo of a Latin American dictatorship, surrounded by an entourage of bodyguards, inside armored cars or in his private jet.
In 1991, his pal George Bush held a commanding approval rating, thanks to the U.S. public's response to his Gulf War decisions. Republican ideologues had helped Mas build his Foundation for twelve years. He expected even more help in the future as he began regularly to predict Fidel Castro's rapid demise.
But by Summer 1992, a reputedly liberal Democrat held the lead in the presidential polls. For Mas, this meant the possibility of seeing the hard line he had worked so hard to fashion turned into appeasement - another Jimmy Carter, who had almost reestablished relations with Cuba.
Mas didn't threaten Bill Clinton, nor pretend to change his own Republican registration. Mas knew through his Democratic Party inside men that the Clinton campaign, in July 1992, had run into a money crisis. So he bought Bill Clinton's support of the embargo-tightening Cuban Democracy (or Torricelli) Act in 1992 by offering the candidate $500,000 for his presidential campaign.
"I like it," said Clinton, referring to the Torricelli bill, or perhaps to the easy money.
"I like it," repeated candidate Clinton, who then criticized Bush for "not bringing down the hammer on Castro." Bush, who had opposed the Cuban Democracy Bill, quickly changed his mind when Clinton did the unthinkable, and moved to the right of him on Cuba policy. Bush had no intention of losing Cuban money or votes in Florida.
But Mas Canosa's love affair with Clinton did not endure. In 1995, Cuban Vice President Ricardo Alarcon signed a secretly negotiated agreement with Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff to repatriate Cuban rafters seeking U.S. asylum. Clinton ended the special antiCommunist status that Cubans had enjoyed exclusively - even after the Cold War ended. This status had allowed Mas to emerge as repatriating godfather, permitted him to enjoy privileged relationships with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and to spend taxpayers' money received from NED grants.
The 1995 accord showed, however, that when this miniature man with lots of money and a big voice went up against the banal interests of Florida democrats, he lost. Governor Chiles and Senator Graham feared that hundreds of thousands of foreigners (Cubans), many with non-white skin, washing up on Florida beaches would not enhance their own reelection possibilities.
Mas was furious. He demanded to know what would become of the thirty thousand Cubans housed at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, where they were taken (after 1994) when they were picked up at sea.
Mas lost and accepted reality. Then came a new opportunity to punish Castro. At first he responded in a lukewarm fashion to the Helms-Burton bill, which extended the extraterritorial nature of the U.S. embargo. Clinton himself vacillated in his opposition to the bill. Then Mas understood the possibilities of a bill that would threaten all foreign investment in Cuba. Mas put energy into convincing Bob Dole that by endorsing Helms-Burton, he would win the Cuban vote and some big campaign contributions to boot.
But the Cuban Revolution struggled on and Mas became ever more desperate, especially in the face of declining health. Another opportunity arose for him in February 1996, when Cuban fighter jets shot down two unarmed planes flown by the exile group, Brothers to the Rescue. Clinton answered by signing the Helms-Burton bill. In blaming Castro for bringing "the punishment upon himself," Clinton also codified the embargo, a rare instance of an executive ceding power to Congress. The law was designed to allow Cuban-Americans whose property the revolution had nationalized to sue, in U.S. courts, those who now used that "stolen property." The bill also intended to frighten foreign investors who thought about going into business in Cuba. Without Mas's lobbying, the Helms-Burton Bill might not have reached the stage it did.
Then, Mas was officially diagnosed with Paget's disease. He entered the hospital with lung complications, went into a coma and died. He was a Latino immigrant worth half a billion dollars, under whose tutelage the CANF grew to immense proportions, with thousands of people beholden to it or its Chairman.
He associated with terrorists, behaved like a Mafia don - even mouthing the kind of pro-American cliches that Al Capone once used. If you believe the Cuban government's version, Mas even had the cojones to pass phony bills to the Colombian cartel for the purchase of some white powder.
He won most of the battles he fought - except the biggest, against the one person he vowed to hurt. The big one, the target, the obsession, now outlives him. This Huey Long of Cuban exiles, this Father Coughlin of south Florida, this Boss Tweed of Dade County, aspired to rule the island of his birth. But he was denied.
"I am a misunderstood man," he said in a 1992 interview in Miami. "I have never assimilated. I never intended to. I am a Cuban first. I live here only as an extension of Cuba."
Mas Canosa always believed he was right. Any effort to engage in dialogue or trade with Cuba was a sell-out or a Castro-made trap. Anyone who disagreed felt the full weight of Jorge Mas Canosa. "I am not running a popularity contest," he said in a 1988 interview. "It came about that I am the most popular guy in the Cuban community because when you are in a leadership role you must educate the people. If the people don't believe you in the beginning, you will prove to them that you are fight and make them follow you."
Even as he lay comatose in the hospital, Jorge Mas's operatives remained busy at their chosen profession. In September 1997, Cuban authorities presented evidence that Luis Posada had planned, with Mas and other CANF members, to recruit Salvadoran thugs to bomb Cuban tourist sites. The Foundation denied any ties to the bombings. Then, in October 1997, U.S. Customs agents in Puerto Rico arrested four Cuban exiles on a boat owned by a CANF executive. The Customs agents found high-powered rifles on board and claimed that the arrested Cubans admitted that they were planning to assassinate Fidel Castro, in Margarita (an island off Venezuela), where Castro was to attend an Ibero-American summit meeting. The rifles also belonged to CANF executives. They and the men on the boat will go on trial shortly. All denied the charges, claiming that CANF was democratic and non-violent. They were, after all, following in the footsteps of their mentor.
Mas never outgrew his propensity for violence, bullying and intimidation. The combination of strong-arm tactics, financial "leveraging" of politicians, manipulation of the media, and crushing of dissent in the Cuban-American community enabled him to become a one-man, single-issue political powerhouse and perfect "the art of the deal" on Capitol Hill. Until last year's assassination plot, the U.S. government had stayed out of Mas's way.
When Mas died, Castro saw yet another enemy bite the dust. He has already watched nine presidents sit in the Oval Office, each out to destroy him. One would think, with conservative Republican Senators and CEOs of major corporations pushing to soften the embargo, that the President would finally lift the ignoble legacy that Mas Canosa represented - if only medical science could perfect the cojones transplant.
1. Reinaldo Taladrid and Lazaro Barreda, El Chairman Soy Yo (Havana: Ediciones Trebo, 1994), pp. 18-34.
2. On Rodriguez: After Fort Benning, Luis Posada Carrilles, a former Batista cop, became a CIA asset for DISIP (Venezuelan intelligence). By 1976, he was running a detective agency in Caracas. Then the Venezuelan police arrested him for planning the October bombing of a Cuban airliner over Barbados that killed 73 people. Posada later "escaped" from a Venezuelan prison when guards looked away - in exchange for $50,000. Coincidentally, shortly before Posada's exodus from prison, Jorge Mas Canosa withdrew $50,000 from one of his many accounts. Some of Mas's former associates doubt that Mas would have put up such dough even for a close fascist pal like Posada. They say that the CIA boys bailed out their own asset.
In the mid 1980s, the fugitive Posada appeared at Ilopongo air base in El Salvador where Felix (aka Max) Gomez worked for Ollie North's supply-the-Contras mission. Mas made frequent visits to see his pals, sent Cuban exile doctors to treat Contra wounded, and used his influence to "persuade" Central American leaders to back Reagan policy. North refers to Mas in his notebooks, and to the $50,000.
Rodriguez, after Fort Benning, became a CIA official, and in 1967 worked with U.S. Special Forces and Bolivian troops to track down Che Guevara. Mas subsequently introduced his buddy as "the man who killed Che."
Like a good Musketeer, Mas remained loyal to Posada, his terrorist cohort, and to Rodriguez, his CIA pal. Friendship to Jorge Mas was an obligation as long as his friends behaved appropriately. He saw nothing wrong with bombing Cuban commercial airplanes or tourist sites - in a war against one's mortal enemy. But part of becoming an American success meant that he had to learn not to say things like that in public. It took Mas some time and experience to evolve from his impulsive, stereotypically Latin 1960s modes of thinking to his 1970s U.S. strategic planning.
3. Fonzi, interview with author and in Esquire, January 1993, p. 120.
4. Interview by author with Barandela, Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, Antonio Veciana, and other former anti-Castro militants, 1994-96.
5. Miami Herald, April 10, 1988. Fonzi, Mas deposition, Case No. 87-52896.
6. Orlando Sentinel-Tribune, January 17, 1993.
7. Miami Herald, November 27, 1997.
8. RECE, April 1974, No. 113, p. 1.
9. Miami Herald, August 20, 1975.
10. Fonzi, 1989.
11. Miami Herald, November 24, 1997.
12. Meeting with Castro, March 1997.
Saul Landau is the Hugh O. LaBounty Chair of Interdisciplinary Applied
Knowledge at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is the
author of Red Hot Radio: Sex, Violence, and Politics at the End of the
American Century (Common Courage, 1999).