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For exiles, a shifting vision of a new Cuba

As Fidel Castro's illness brings long-held dreams into sight, many Cuban-Americans are willing to tailor their hopes to a new reality.

Published August 4, 2006

MIAMI - Fifteen years ago, many thought Jorge Mas Canosa - arguably the most influential Cuban-American in the country at the time - would succeed Fidel Castro as president of a free and democratic Cuba.

As leader of the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami, Mas Canosa had the ear of former presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton. He won federal funding for Radio Marti, which broadcasts U.S. news into Cuba, with the mission of fighting communism. He successfully lobbied for the Helms-Burton Act, which, among other things, provides power to Congress to override a presidential cancellation of the longstanding embargo against Cuba.

Now, in 2006, the moment that Mas Canosa dreamed of is here: Castro has transferred power to his brother, Raul, and for the first time in 47 years, Cubans are considering a future without communism.

However, Mas Canosa is not around to savor the victory - he died in 1997 - and CANF, the group that he founded, is a decidedly different animal. While still a powerful and influential force in Cuban-American politics, CANF is taking a pragmatic approach to the potential transition.

"Historically, they have been known as very hard-line on Cuba and supportive of the U.S. government's policy," said Harley Shaiken, a professor of Latin American issues at the University of California at Berkeley. "In recent years, they've shown more openness and flexibility."

When talking about the possibility of returning to the island to reclaim property, the recent comments of Jorge Mas Santos - CANF's chairman, and Mas Canosa's son - show the group has moved beyond the realm of flexible and into some advanced yoga.

"You have people who lost a farm and now say they want their cows back," Mas Santos told the New York Times. "Forget it. The cow is dead."

Still, there are plenty of emigres in Miami who cling to the dream of living, and dying, on the island.

"Every year in my life here has been temporary," said Daniel Gonzalez, a 69-year-old worker at CANF. Gonzalez's family owned a farm in eastern Cuba, and in 1970, he fled to Spain, then Miami, because of government repression.

"People ask me, Why don't you buy a farm here? I tell them, I'm waiting. I have to go back. I want to farm in Cuba."

More than farming, Gonzalez said he wants to return to his homeland to "help establish a democratic system."

Everybody, from President Bush to the average Cuban-American sipping a cafecito on Calle Ocho in Little Havana, seems to want to help foster democracy. But how?

"I urge the Cuban people to work for democratic change on the island," Bush said Thursday. "We will support you in your effort to build a transitional government in Cuba committed to democracy, and we will take note of those, in the current Cuban regime, who obstruct your desire for a free Cuba."

Francisco Hernandez, president of CANF, said that change must come from within the island, not from within the Cuban-American community.

"The path to democracy must be defined and designed by the Cuban people themselves," he said.

Then, Hernandez utters a phrase that it is hard to imagine ever coming out of Jorge Mas Canosa's mouth.

"If they believe that there should be a socialist democracy - a true socialist democracy - well, so be it."

Val Prieto, a 41-year-old Miami man who was born in Havana and runs a popular internet Web diary called "," said he isn't surprised by Hernandez' comments.

"If that's what the Cuban people want, then what are you going to do, you can't shove democracy down their throats," Prieto said. "I think eventually it's our responsibility as a community that loves freedom to show the people in Cuba that this is a pretty good life."

He agrees that CANF's influence has waned in recent years. But he says the group is still relevant and predicts it will be a strong voice during the upcoming transition.

"They will play a pretty big role," Prieto said. "They are representative of this community. They are representative of all Cuban-American exiles in the U.S. They need to step up and play that big role."

Located in a nondescript building just a few blocks from the street where thousands of flag-waving Miamians have celebrated what they hope is Castro's impending demise, CANF has been abuzz with activity in recent days, keeping its doors and phone lines open well after 11 p.m. to handle nearly nonstop requests for interviews.

It's also kept doing the things that have defined the group for 25 years, such as lobbying Congress and aiding the island's dissidents. Already, CANF officials have implored the Cuban military to participate in civil disobedience against Raul Castro and the government.

CANF officials also have been making use of their high-level access in Washington to address another major issue: the possibility of a mass exodus similar to 1980's Mariel boatlift.

Hernandez said that several months before Castro's illness, CANF gave the Bush administration some proposed changes to the "wet foot-dry foot" policy that allows Cuban emigres who reach U.S. soil to stay legally.

CANF asked the Bush administration to consider allowing Cubans who are captured at sea to receive a court hearing instead of being turned back. This would be similar to the way immigrants captured on the U.S.-Mexico border are treated, he said. Hernandez also favors taking 5,000 of the 20,000 lottery visas available each year to Cubans and creating a waiting list for those visas. To get on the list, people would have to pledge not to take to the sea.

It's unclear whether lawmakers at the state and national level would support such changes.

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson said Thursday he does not approve of tinkering with the "wet foot-dry foot" policy.

"I don't support changing current U.S. policy on Cuban refugees, unless there's a regime change on the island or a mass migration that endangers thousands of people," Nelson said.

And contrary to CANF's desire for more court hearings for Cuban refugees, Florida officials have a plan in place that calls for relocating migrants to "classified sites outside the state of Florida within 72 hours."

Mike Stone, a spokesman for the state's emergency operations agency, said the idea of creating out-of-state detention sites was included in the plan as a proposal to deal potential mass migrations across the Florida Straits. He said such sites may not be necessary, but said that would be decided by the federal government.

On Wednesday, Cuban-American members of Congress said the Bush administration would be making announcements regarding Cuban immigration in the coming days. They wouldn't offer specifics, however, making it harder to find a consensus strategy in a community that once seemed to be in lockstep behind Jorge Mas Canosa.

Back at CANF, workers field phone calls from CNN and answer policy questions from reporters. They are gathering medical supplies and thinking of how they will bring the internet to people in a free Cuba. Now is CANF's moment, the one they have been waiting for all these years.

"I wish I had been this busy 30 or 40 years ago," said Hernandez.

Times staff writer Jennifer Liberto and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press. Tamara Lush can be reached at 727 893-8612 or at

[Last modified August 4, 2006, 02:00:23]

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