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Dennis Hays steps down as CANF's man in Washington
CubaNews / September 2003

By Larry Luxner

Politics and pragmatism have convinced Dennis Hays it’s time to quit his job as Washington director of the Cuban American National Foundation — the nation’s largest and most influential Cuban exile group.

Hays announced his resignation Aug. 12, though he won’t be stepping down until early September. The decision follows his unhappiness with the CANF’s increasingly sharp and personal attacks on President Bush, whose administration in July ordered the return of 12 Cuban refugees intercepted at sea.

“It’s no secret that I disagree with the current approach, but the reason I’m leaving is that it’s time to do other things,” said Hays, downplaying those disagreements in an interview with CubaNews. “I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished, and I’m on very good terms with the foundation and I expect to continue to be.”

Hays, 50, is being replaced by his assistant, Camila Ruíz, 30, who’s described by CANF as “a veteran of Capitol Hill.”

Ruíz worked on the staff of the House of Representatives’ International Relations Sub-committee and on the personal staff of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), one of Fidel Castro’s most vociferous critics in Congress.

“I came to this position and had expected to be here two or three years. As it turned out, it’s been three years,” said Hays.

“My major goal when I started was to help shift the debate away from the embargo and U.S.-Cuba bilateral relations to the activities of the emerging independent sector inside Cuba — the dissidents, the proto-entrepreneurs, the human-rights activists. And I think we’ve done this. In the Cuban-American community, there’s now an understanding that these are people who are suffering and fighting against great odds, and that they firmly deserve our support.”

CubaNews interviewed Hays at CANF’s Washington headquarters, dubbed the “Embassy for a Free Cuba” at its much-hyped inauguration two years ago. Back then, the CANF stood solidly behind President Bush, who was widely expected to tighten the embargo rather than maintain the status quo.

These days, the four-story, 19th-century rowhouse on Jefferson Place is strangely sil-ent, its one-time staff of seven slashed to two. A “For Sale” sign hangs in a first-floor window, next to a fading poster demanding freedom for Cuban dissident Oscar Elias Biscet.

Under Bush’s watch, U.S. food and agricultural commodity sales to Cuba have skyrocketed, reaching half a billion dollars since December 2001.

And while the Treasury Department has made it much more difficult for average Americans to visit Cuba on so-called “people-to-people exchanges,” the island continues to receive a steady stream of remittances and visits by Cuban-Americans.

Things really began to boil over in July, when the Bush administration decided to send a dozen Cuban refugees back to their homeland after winning assurances from the Castro government that they’d be sentenced to no more than 10 years in prison.

That touched off an outpouring of anger against President Bush by CANF leaders as well as other prominent Cuban-Americans.

Thirteen members of Florida’s state Republican Hispanic Caucus have warned Bush that he risks losing their support in the 2004 elections if he doesn’t get tougher with Castro.

Specifically, they’re seeking a revision of current immigration policy; an indictment of Castro for the 1996 shootdown of two Brothers to the Rescue planes; a broadening of Radio and TV Martí, and increased help for dissidents in Cuba.

“We feel it is our responsibility as Republican elected officials to inform you that un-less substantial progress on the above-mentioned issues occurs rapidly,” warned a letter from the Florida lawmakers, “we fear the historic and intense support from Cuban-American voters for Republican federal candidates, including yourself, will be jeopardized.”

Separately, Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart (R-FL) told The Miami Herald that CANF leaders are merely “remnants of an organization that had once been on our side, but now has become part of the coalition working to weaken U.S. opposition to the dictatorship in Cuba.”

The feud has made things very uncomfortable for Hays, a diplomat who served at missions in Jamaica, Burundi and Guyana before ending his foreign-service career as U.S. ambassador to Suriname.

From 1993 to 1995, Hays served as the State Department’s coordinator for Cuban affairs. In a touch of irony given the current bickering, he quit that position to protest the Clinton administration’s decision to repatriate Cuban refugees rescued on the high seas.

But Hays insists things are different with George W. Bush in the White House.

“It’s my belief that the current administration is by far the best friend that the cause of freedom in Cuba has ever had,” he told us. “Having worked on this issue for over a decade, I can say that the difference in vision between this administration and the previous one is striking. Yet some people in Miami are pushing for more.”

He added: “My sense is that we need to work with this administration because their goals and the goals of rapid, peaceful, democratic change in Cuba are one and the same.”

The CANF, with an estimated 20,000 members, has been hurt by the recent defections of prominent CANF leaders who said the Miami-based organization was “going soft” on Castro.

Hays said this kind of anger is natural, given the lack of change in Cuba.

“There has been considerable frustration on the part of the Cuban-American community that the regime continues to hold on. It’s very clear that Castro has no intention of taking common-sense steps to at least ameliorate the suffering of his own people.

“So the community has a sense that the end game is in play, and that we should be as proactive as possible to minimize the pains of the transition,” Hays told CubaNews.

“The community has always provided humanitarian and other support for their own families. But a lot of people look at that and assume the community has softened with respect to Castro. And that’s not accurate.”

On the contrary, he says, “whereas 10 or 15 years ago there was no reason to think beyond your initial convictions, now we have to because there will be changes coming to Cuba. All of us need to hold onto our principles but adapt to a changing environment.”

In the meantime, Hays isn’t sure what he’ll do next — return to diplomatic life or remain a Washington lobbyist on Cuba issues.

At any rate, he said, “I’m not planning to turn in my membership card. I continue to believe that the CANF is the organization best able to translate the will of the Cuban-American community to the political process.”

In that, he has the backing of CANF Chairman Jorge Mas Santos.

In a prepared statement, the exile leader said that “while at CANF, Ambassador Hays made very significant contributions to the cause of a free Cuba, and will be missed. In whatever capacity he chooses to continue to serve the cause of freedom, he will do it with honor. We wish him the best.”

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