CubaNews / October 2003
By Larry Luxner
Joe García wasn’t around when Fidel Castro took power in Cuba; in fact, he’s never even been to the island.
But cubanismo runs deep in García’s blood, and today, the 39-year-old lawyer is executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation. As such, he proudly serves as the voice — some would say the mouthpiece — of the largest and most influential Cuban exile organization in the United States.
Last month, CubaNews interviewed García for more than an hour and a half at CANF headquarters in Miami. He spent much of that time explaining why the Cuban-American community is so disillusioned and disgusted with President Bush.
“We criticized the Clinton administration without pity or mercy, and it was probably much stronger than any criticism we’ve leveled at Bush,” García said. “The problem is that this administration — which received 85% of the votes of the Cuban-American community — has practiced perfect rhetoric and complete inaction, leading to nothing more than status quo policies on Cuba.”
He added: “When Ronald Reagan was in power, he saw Eastern Europe for what it was. This administration sees Cuba for what it is, and wants to keep it that way. They do not want to rock the boat.”
García was born in Miami Beach’s Mount Sinai Hospital (“that accounts for my Jewish looks,” he joked) only two years after his family emigrated from Cuba. One of his grandfathers was a bus driver on the old Route 7 between Havana and the town of El Cotorro, now a suburb of the capital.
At the University of Miami, García was elected president of student government, and after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in political science and public affairs in 1987, he got involved with the CANF’s Cuban Exodus Relief Fund, which brought Cubans from third countries to U.S. shores as refugees.
Garciá went on to earn a law degree in 1991 from UM, and then spent seven years on the Florida Public Service Commission, eventually becoming the most prominent Hispanic in Florida government, and the first Hispanic ever to be named chairman of the PSC.
During his tenure there, García devoted his time to everything from electricity rate hikes to potentially controversial area-code splits.
These days, he’s much more interested in freeing political prisoners in Cuba, improving Radio and TV Martí, and getting the respect he says Cuban-Americans deserve from their elected officials in Washington.
“Cuban-Americans have earned the right to sit at the table with other citizens,” said García, whose third-floor office is decorated with political posters, Cuban flags and pseudo-antique maps of the Caribbean. “We’ve been good voters, solid taxpayers and great Republicans. We shouldn’t have to ask for scraps from the floor.”
García said the CANF’s budget oscillates between $1.2 million and $2 million a year. “We don’t take any money from the federal government,” he insisted. “Only once, in 1983, we received a National Endowment for Democracy grant. Since then, we haven’t received a penny from the government.”
Rather, CANF’s funding comes from its 10,000 monthly members paying $5 a month, another 50,000 or so annual contributors, and a 170-member board of directors that bankrolls about half of CANF’s total budget.
“The foundation has always been a rational purveyor of a practical Cuba policy,” he said. “I think there was a period after [CANF founder Jorge] Mas Canosa’s death, and a bit during the Elián tragedy, that we slipped to an extreme. People inside the foundation played to that, which was a mistake. I don’t think extremes make up the debate.”
Under the more moderate leadership of Mas Canosa’s son, Jorge Mas Santos, the CANF’s policies began to seem less extreme. One reason for this, he suggested, was the hiring of Washington director Dennis Hays, who left that position last month after three years, partially because he disagreed with the CANF’s sharp criticism of the White House.
“Dennis did a fantastic job for us,” said García, who remains friends with Hays. “He left an ambassadorship to join our foundation, as I left a high-level job to join the foundation. Dennis put us back into the rational column as opposed to the extremist column. He was able to galvanize the leadership of Mas Santos, and we began to have a rational and much more productive policy.”
One of those “rational” policies was the CANF’s surprise announcement last year that it would negotiate a peaceful, democratic transition in Cuba with Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque, Vice President Carlos Lage, National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón or any other Cuban leader whose last name doesn’t happen to be Castro.
“We’ll talk to anybody who is willing to bring about change in Cuba, except for Fidel and Raúl. The reason is, they could do this tomorrow. They don’t need the CANF to shift policy towards democracy. Fidel could send a limo to pick up [Oswaldo] Payá and [Vladimiro] Roca, take [Dr. Oscar Elias] Biscet out of jail, bring them to the national palace, and the day after we could begin a democratic transition to Cuba.
“But in the end, Castro is not interested in a rational debate on Cuba. Pérez Roque and Alarcón aren’t gonna talk to us. Because if those guys are willing to talk, it wouldn’t be not dialogue, it would be conspiracy. And I’m willing to conspire with anyone to bring about an end to that regime.”
Fortunately for García, he doesn’t think he’ll have to wait much longer.
“Within 10 years,” the politician predicts, “Fidel Castro will not be in power, Cuba will be a social democratic nation, and the Cuban-American community will be the driving engine of Cuba’s future.”
Meanwhile, says García, that community wants to see substantial progress on four specific issues: Radio and TV Martí, immigration policy, money for Cuban dissidents, and the indictment of Castro himself for ordering the shootdown of two Brothers to the Rescue planes over international waters in 1996.
“Radio and TV Martí have become one of the largest taxpayer hoaxes ever visited upon the Cuban-American community,” García charged. “They’ve become a political patronage center for mediocre talent. Ten years later, what do we have to show for it? Radio Martí’s listenership is one-tenth what it was in the ‘90s, and TV Martí is a joke. We’ve spent over $100 million just on TV Martí, and the only people who watch it are the poor bastards over at the Ministry of Interior.”
García scorned the Bush administration’s recent announcement that it would begin transmitting via satellite, thereby dramatically boosting TV Martí’s audience.
“Less than 10,000 people in Cuba have satellite dishes, and most of them are in the government. If you’ve got a satellite dish, you’re also getting CNN, HBO, the Playboy Channel and Spice. With all those options to choose from, who the hell is gonna watch a government-run propaganda channel?”
An even more crucial issue, he said, is U.S. immigration policy. According to García, the lottery system by which the U.S. awards visas to 20,000 Cubans each year “is based on a list compiled in 1996, and the Cuban government has not allowed the U.S. government to refresh that list. There’s a generation of Cubans who don’t qualify for the lottery.”
More importantly, asks García, “why do we have an immigration program that rewards the dictatorship? It should be controlled by the United States, not Cuba. We should stop it and demand a full review of immigration policy. Today the lottery system is used to exploit those who win lotteries. Those who have been difficult to the regime don’t get exit visas. Professionals have to pay thousands of dollars to the regime to get out. The U.S. government should not be participating in extortion.”
García also criticized the “wet foot-dry foot” policy that grants asylum to Cubans who make it to U.S. soil but turns back those who don’t. The result, he said, is that “the Coast Guard intercepts a boat in the middle of the ocean, scoops up someone who’s dehydrated, sunburned and seasick, throws him on the deck, conducts an interview and drops him off in Havana.”
Finally, the CANF urges more financial help to dissidents, even though many leading dissidents including Payá and Elizardo Sánchez insist U.S. government assistance only taints their reputations and endangers their lives.
García counters that Payá, Sánchez and other dissidents still in Cuba have to say that in order to avoid jail sentences or worse.
“Today, we send Cuba a measly $4 million a year, most of which gets pumped into Miami-based exile groups. We should be spending $40 million a year on non-profits that send money to Cuba to help foment civil society,” he said, adding that “the only countries that have migrated to centrist, capitalist, productive social economic models are those where a large civil society took power — for example, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Other countries like Russia, Albania and Bulgaria went in the wrong direction because those countries had no civil society.”
And rising U.S. food exports to Cuba have only made the situation worse by bankrolling the Castro regime, says García.
“This administration has done more business with Cuba than any administration since John Kennedy was in the White House,” he said. “They’re spending $200 million a year on food. Cuba’s purchases are not based on their nourishment needs, but on congressional districts. They’re buying congressional votes.
“Right now, we are very dissatisfied with this administration,” he added, hinting that polls show “there has clearly been slippage on Bush’s 85% approval rate among the Cuban-American community. He thinks we’re a sure thing, but we’re being taken for granted.”
Does this mean that vast numbers of Cuban-Americans could end up electing a Democrat to the White House?
That’s up to President Bush, said García.
“Thus far, Howard Dean’s position is just like that of the president. Gephardt has a 27-year perfect record on Cuba. Joe Lieberman also has a perfect voting record on Cuba, and has personal relationships with many people in this community. He’s a friend,” said García.
“The only distinction between the Demo-crats and the Republicans is that the Democrats running for president don’t have the responsibility to act. The White House does.”
Meanwhile, he said, most Cuban-Americans will continue to support the embargo — just as they’ve done for the last 43 years.
“Those in the only position to offer sensible progress, ethical, resourceful entrepreneurship refuse to do business in Cuba. The overwhelming majority of Cuban-Americans who are doing business in Cuba are disreputable, non-trustworthy and unethical,” he said.
“We disinvested in South Africa. That didn’t cost hundreds of millions, but tens of billions to the U.S. taxpayer. But we did it gladly because it was the right thing to do.”
Isolating Cuba is no different, García insists, no matter how long it may take.
“My point,” he says, “is that Cuban-Americans have done something historically significant: they’ve said no to what could be tremendous economic opportunities, because they have held firm to their convictions.”
It may sound pompous, but García can only conclude that “without Cuban-Americans, there is no future for Cuba. And as soon as Cuba offers any type of democratic change, its future will be limitless.”