- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 4, 2001

The Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation is the largest, best funded, best organized and most villified anti-Castro lobby in the nation. It has been very successful in Washington, turning its agenda into law. Tom Carter recently sat with the Foundation's Washington director, Dennis Hays, to discuss its work and U.S.-Cuba policy.

Question: A number of prominant members of the the Cuban American National Foundation resigned recently, saying the organization has turned its back on its founding principles. What does the split mean for the foundation's work?
Answer: Let's put this into perspective. Eighteen out of 170 board members resigned. The foundation, like any kind of dynamic organization, is always gaining and losing members. That is healthy. I think the resignations are an indication that there is a vibrant discussion of the issues and possible courses of action that we can undertake. We're sorry to see anybody leave, and their departure is one that we will feel, because there are a number of individuals who have literally from Day One have been instrumental in helping build the foundation.
However, for a very long time, Cuban policy was essentially frozen. Everyone knew their part. Now everything is changing. From the whole issue of Elian [Gonzalez, the 5-year-old Cuban boy rescued after a small boat carrying illegal immigrants capsized off Florida in November 1999, leading to a custody tug-of-war between relatives in Miami and his father in Havana], to the introduction of new players in the debate — the farm state Republicans — to pending departure from the scene of Fidel Castro, all of these things are out there, and the situation is changing.
If you asked the people who left CANF and the people who stayed what they want, you will get identical answers — a free Cuba. But there is difference in how we get there and what do we do in order to achieve those goals.

Q: For years the foundation's position has been 'no dialogue or contact' with the Cuban regime. Has that changed?
A: It's evolving, in the sense that as things change in Cuba, we need to be prepared to change a little bit in how we achieve the same goal.
For example, we're now putting a great deal of emphasis on direct contact with political prisoners, dissidents, independent journalists, librarians, entrepreneurs all of these people who really didn't exist a decade ago or it was impossible for them to exist because of the command structure that Castro had in place.
As that structure breaks down, there are now people who are trying to create pockets of independence and freedom of movement. It's very early, it's been small, we don't have much leeway, but nonetheless it's there. And it's our feeling that it's important that these are exactly the people we need to be working with to best achieve the goals of the foundation.
There are some saying that all that is necessary is to maintain absolute fidelity to the embargo and nothing else.

Q: Has the embargo worked?
A: It's my view that the embargo was always misunderstood. People had the view that it was supposed to actually bring Castro down. That was never the case.
The embargo has succeeded in what it was constructed to do, which is to deny Castro resources that he can use to export revolution and subversion, to demonstrate that communism has no future and most importantly, it was a drain on the Soviet Union.
There was $100 billion or $120 billion that the Soviets poured down the hole of Cuba. Who knows how the Cold War might have gone if they had the resources to put into maintaining themselves.
The embargo clearly worked. Now, it's important that we retain the embargo, because it's our best leverage for a transitional government in Cuba to try and make sure they're moving in the right direction.

Q: What about a transition?
A: My sense is that Castro either dies or is sort of removed from the scene and his brother either steps up or is put as figurehead above him. But if the regime's smart, it will let a few political prisoners go; they will announce a couple of economic reforms. Then some people in this country will say there is a need to reciprocate. "We need to lift all sanctions, lift the travel ban" — in other words give away all of our cards for basically nothing.
What we will have done is cemented into place successive regimes, which is really no different than the current one. One Castro instead of another, or a figurehead — that is the worst and most foolish thing we could do.

Q: What is the biggest perception problem you face with Cuba?
A: We have to look for ways to explain Cuba to a broader audience. We need to counter a lot of what passes as common knowledge.
I cannot tell you how many times a day someone says to me, "We trade with China, why don't we trade with Cuba?"
My response is: Tell me exactly why it is in our interests to have relations with China.
They are busy beating and burning people who conduct breathing exercises, they are crushing the dissidents, they are exporting weapons of mass destruction, they are building up their military to challenge us on all fronts, they are stealing our technological secrets and we have a $85 billion trade deficit. Tell me where in there it is in our benefit to have the current policy.
This is not to say we do not engage, but we have to be clear what it is we want from either side or the standards of conduct we expect for mutual benefit. We have the right policy on Cuba.

Q: The foudation's president, Jorge Mas Santos, took a political gamble when he endorsed holding the Latin Grammys in Miami, even though he knew Cuban artists from the island had been invited. Some of the people who resigned from the foundation said they were leaving because he took that position without consulting them. The Grammys, now going to Los Angeles, said they were afraid of Cuban-American protesters, protesting against the Cuban artists who had been invited. If there is such a large group of Cuban-Americans who are against the Latin Grammys in Miami, how well are you representing your constituents if the foundation is supporting the show?
A: There are 1.5 to 2 million Cubans in the United States. Not all live in South Florida. What you find is: All think Castro is the problem, the regime is unacceptable. There is a lively debate and differences of opinion on how best to do something about that.
With respect to the Grammys, there are people who feel that any interaction with an artist from Cuba is by definition strengthening the Castro regime. Others, noting how many artists have fled the Castro regime over the years, think that for everyone who has fled, at least 10 are thinking about it.
The problem is not Miami. The problem is Havana. We support the people's right to protest. I'm disappointed the Grammys cut and ran. Part of what America is is the right to protest, but there is a difference of opinion over whether they should have come in the first place.

Q: Is this a generational issue? Jorge Mas, the CANF founder, and the old guard said no compromise or dialogue with the regime. Now his son, Jorge Mas Santos, may be more comfortable with other points of view? I am also told that during the Elian Gonzalez situation last year, CANF got a large influx of young members who became politicized over the issue. Is your membership growing and is it younger than in the past?
A: One outcome of the Elian situation is that a lot of second-generation Cubans people who grew up outside Florida — rediscovered their roots. They were taken aback by the demonization of the Cuban-American community — the one group that everyone seems to feel they can attack. So they became more active college students, young professionals, young families.
Since the resignations, we are gaining two new members for every one we lose. We have about 25,000 to 30,000 members. We are gaining more than we are losing. We are gaining outside Florida, as well as inside Florida. As for the resignations, out of 170 board members 20 left, but 150 stayed.

Q: Let's talk about your legislative agenda in Washington. You lost a big one in early August when the House voted to lift the travel ban on Cuba. Now it goes to the Senate, which will almost certainly vote to lift the ban on Americans to travel to Cuba. Will President Bush veto that bill if it gets to his desk?
A: The president has spoken directly on the subject. We expect that he will not sign legislation to lift the travel ban.

Q: What about your proposal to spend $100 million over four years to aid the political opposition on the island, much like President Reagan did for the dissidents in Eastern Europe before the fall of communism?
A: It is interesting to see how people flip-flop on these issues. The same people who supported this sort of engagement in other areas South Africa, Central America and Haiti, for example oppose it with respect for Cuba. We want the same consideration given to Cubans living under oppression as was given to Serbians living under oppression. We spent $40 million in Serbia over the past year doing exactly these sorts of things, and a year ago everyone thought [then-Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic was going to be there forever. Not only is he not in power, but he is in The Hague waiting for trial. With a little bit of effort on our part, helping the people who want help could go a long way.

Q: You recently brought a group of black dissidents to Capitol Hill to discuss the issue of racism in Cuba. How did that visit go?
A: It went very well. One of the myths of the revolution is that blacks and other minorities have prospered under Castro. Some of that is because everyone measures in terms of 1959. Measure how well blacks have done in this country since 1959.
The position of the people who grew up in Cuba and suffered under the regime is, ask questions. Are blacks employed in the travel industry, like they should be? The answer is 'No.' Are blacks represented in senior branches of government, the military or the police? And the answer is 'No.'
The question for the Black Caucus is why is this: "And why aren't you speaking out?"
If Castro died tomorrow and a fully democratic government were in place, the Black Caucus would discover that there is a severe racial problem in Cuba and act immediately.
They could act now. They don't have to wait.

Q: What do you see on the horizon regarding U.S.-Cuban relations?
A: We see that the regime is preparing for its transformation or its change. Our mantra is: We need a transition, not a succession.
The Cubans around Castro are beginning to move to preserve their prerogatives. [After Mr. Castro steps down or dies] we expect them to bring in a couple of well-known dissidents into the government in a package.
We know Cuban government representatives and officials have been traveling around South Florida talking to people, trying to cut deals, trying to get people on board. They are talking with the "dialoguero" types and working their way up the chain. Their message is: Fidel is on his way out. We are on our way in.
The danger for us is all the people who have been yipping and yapping about lifting the embargo will take this and give up any advantage we have, and cement into place all the people with blood on their hands, and corruption and crime, racial discrimination in Cuba.

Q: You lost the public relations campaign over Elian. Now there is the Grammys flap. You've lost an important battle on Capitol Hill over the travel ban. Your critics are saying your time has passed. Has all this diminished the foundation's clout in Washington?
A: Our obituary gets written every eight or nine months. We've lost this or that. Somehow, we manage to bounce back and live to fight another day. The foundation is here for the long haul. We continue to work to bring freedom and democracy to Cuba no matter what happens. If we lose a battle here or there, we will not go away.
I think it is incumbent upon the people who want the policy changes to say why they think tourism will help Cuba. Where in the world has tourism had an impact on a political level? Farmers, please show me any agricultural sale to Cuba that does not involve subsidies, below world-market price, barter or debt forgiveness. There are none.
If you are talking about credit, look at the list of people flying into Havana trying to get paid. Cuba is broke. They have no credit, and they have no intention of paying anyone.

Q: Are you making any headway in getting the Justice Department to indict Fidel over the shoot-down of the Brothers to the Rescue, which killed three American citizens.
A: Yes. The U.S. Attorney's office in Florida has the responsibility of looking at this, and it is my understanding that they are actively looking at this.
The previous administration did not want to see this come up. That message worked its way down the chain. We now have an administration that is prepared to let justice be done.
Our laws state that these issues should be dealt with in a certain manner — no more, no less. Our position is: Let justice be done.

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