The Washington Diplomat / August 2001
By Larry Luxner
A Cuban flag waves defiantly over the entrance to their four-story "embassy," blocks from Dupont Circle, while a portrait of their late president and founder, Jorge Mas Canosa, gazes down somberly at visitors waiting to see the man who runs this controversial little mission, Ambassador Dennis Hays.
Welcome to the newly inaugurated "Embassy for a Free Cuba" -- the latest salvo in a public-relations blitz by the Cuban American National Foundation to push its conservative agenda, which includes tightening the U.S. trade embargo against Fidel Castro's Communist regime and lending moral and financial support to anti-Castro dissidents in Cuba.
"The purpose of this building is to give people who are interested in promoting a free and independent democratic Cuba a place to gather to exchange views and ideas," said Hays, the foundation's executive vice president. "We hold a fair number of events, book signings and film showings. We encourage people from across the political spectrum to participate."
The "embassy" Hays presides over occupies two 19th-century rowhouses on Jefferson Place, for which the CANF paid $1.75 million. One of them was once the home of Teddy Roosevelt (a curious irony, given that the former president achieved his glory in Cuba, leading the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill in the 1898 Spanish-American War, which ultimately led to Cuba's independence).
The mission's Feb. 6 inauguration attracted more 400 people, including members of Congress, leaders of the Miami Cuban exile community and other dignitaries. But there was no official State Department presence -- despite the Cuban community's overwhelming electoral support for President Bush in the wake of last year's Elian González affair.
"Obviously, we don't consider these offices to be an embassy or any kind of diplomatic mission," said a spokesman at the State Department, which recognizes the Cuban Interests Section on 16th Street as Havana's sole representative in the United States. Since October 1995, that mission has been headed by diplomat Fernando Remírez de Estenóz, who is leaving this month and will soon be replaced by Dagberto RodrĚguez.
Neither man could be reached for comment, but state-run Radio Havana gave a pretty good indication of the Cuban government's official reaction, recently calling "the so-called embassy nothing more than a den of criminals." According to the radio broadcast, Cuban exiles in Miami "are thrilled over the appointment of Republican George W. Bush as president -- an event in which they played an important role. Now, right-wing extremists from South Florida expect their payback for making it possible for the Republicans to steal the presidency. That is how mafias operate."
Such criticism hardly bothers Hays, a seasoned diplomat who spent 24 years with the State Department. "We don't pretend to have official status or directly represent anybody other than those who share a common interest in democratic reform. It's just a way to tweak those guys at the Cuban Interests Section, he said. "They run for cover every time we come close. We think they have no legitimacy, in the sense that governments derive their legitimacy from the will of the people, and when the people have no opportunity to express that will, then how can you represent them?"
Hays, 48, served at U.S. missions in Jamaica, Burundi and Guyana, ending his foreign-service career last year as the U.S. ambassador to Suriname. But he's perhaps best known as the State Department's coordinator for Cuban affairs from 1993 to 1995 -- a position he quit to protest the Clinton administration's decision to forcibly repatriate Cuban refugees rescued on the high seas.
The Cuban exile community's unhappiness with the Democrats turned to disgust after the FBI seized 6-year-old Elian González from his Miami relatives and returned him to Cuba at his father's behest. Outraged, Cuban exiles in Miami overwhelmingly supported Bush against Al Gore in the race for president, helping to hand Florida -- and ultimately the presidency -- to the Republicans.
"It's clear that there's a marked change from the very top, in terms of what we see as a commitment to effecting democratic reform in Cuba," he said. "We're very pleased by that, and we can see that we have a friend in the White House. Clearly, the president enjoys very strong support in the Cuban-American community."
In fact, the CANF has had a Washington presence for 20 years, but only this year relocated from Georgetown to its current office, where Hays directs a staff of seven people. At present, said Hays, the organization has 25,000 to 30,000 members, "and two to three times that number who haven't paid their dues" of $100 a year.
"The foundation itself has a broader mandate. We're headquartered in Miami, but the Washington office works with Capitol Hill, the executive branch and the diplomatic community. We try to do a fair amount of work with our diplomatic friends," he said, without naming specific diplomats or the countries they represent.
Hays did say that the idea of an "embassy in exile" follows the tradition of anti-communists from Eastern Europe who set up similar "embassies" around Washington in the 1980s and eventually saw their countries liberated from Marxism.
He also denies suggestions that the CANF -- frustrated in its failure to stop the Clinton administration from returning Elian to Cuba -- has lost its clout in Washington.
"If you read the current reports, we're back stronger than ever," Hays noted. "We're certainly the largest Cuban-American group in the country. We're well positioned. We have long-term relationships both with the congressional and executive branches. We have scholarship funds, educational funds, public-relations efforts and other programs, all united around the goal of a free and democratic Cuba."
Yet not all the estimated 1.5 million Cuban exiles living in the United States agree on how that goal should be attained. Some Miami-based exile groups advocate dialogue with Fidel Castro, while others at the other end of the political spectrum, like Alpha 66, openly push for violent overthrow of the regime. Even within the CANF, which opposes both such options, there appears to be growing dissent.
Last month, the organization's longtime spokeswoman, Ninoska Pérez Castellón, resigned to protest what she saw as a softening of its opposition to Castro. She also accused Jorge Mas Santos, who took over as president in 1997 following the death of his charismatic father, Jorge Mas Canosa, of running the CANF like a dictatorship
"We're sorry to see her go, and sorry she's taken the approach she has, but I don't think this will have any lasting impact on the foundation," said Hays. He adds that "for a very long time, you really didn't need to do much with Cuba policy, because everybody was frozen in place. Now that things are happening, it's important that we not lose sight of our goal. But we may need to adapt our procedures in a way that's going to be most effective. It's both appropriate and useful to have direct contact with people on the island. Some are more skeptical of that approach."
Despite accusations by Pérez Castellón and other dissenters that the CANF is growing soft on Castro, the organization still forcefully opposes any relaxation of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, first enacted in 1962 by President Kennedy and strengthened by the 1992 Helms-Burton law which, among other things, threatens U.S. sanctions against any countries that invests in Cuba. Before Helms-Burton, the embargo could be abolished by presidential order. Now, it would take an act of Congress to change U.S. policy.
"Our position is that the embargo should continue until Cuba holds free and fair elections that respect the rights and dignities of individual human beings," said Hays. Asked about the possibility that Castro would win an election if one were held today, Hays laughed.
"The reason Fidel will never have an election is because, for a guy like him, winning with 51 percent or 60 percent is a huge defeat. He requires 99 percent or 100 percent, and therefore he will never have an election. His legitimacy is based on the idea that everybody loves him."
On this point, the CANF enjoys the solid backing of President Bush, who on May 18, Cuban Independence Day, declared that "the sanctions our government enforces against the Castro regime are not just a policy tool, they're a moral statement. My administration will oppose any attempt to weaken sanctions against Cuba's government until the regime -- and I will fight such attempts -- frees its political prisoners, holds democratic free elections and allows for free speech."
The CANF also wants to punish European companies that invest in Cuba's tourism, sugar and real estate sectors. The group reserves particular wrath for Grupo Sol Meliá, a Spanish hotel chain with 19 properties in Cuba. Nearly one-third of the hotel rooms on the Caribbean island are controlled by Meliá, including two five-star properties in Havana. The CANF is seeking to have the U.S. government declare sanctions against Sol Meliá, which also has a number of hotels in Florida.
"Someone has to take a stand here," he said. "Our objection to the European firms is that they accept Cuba's terms for everything, and agree to conditions that they know are direct violations of international conduct. For instance, the Cubans actively prevent any form of independent union activity. That's a violation of ILO conventions."
The CANF doesn't get everything it demands, however. In mid-July, the Bush administration, following a precedent set by Clinton, decided not to enforce Title III of the Helms-Burton law, which would permit U.S. citizens of Cuban origin to sue foreign companies for investing in "confiscated" property once owned by their families.
"We think it's an important step, both in terms of simple justice, and establishing the concept of private property and the rule of law. Having said that, it's one piece of a much larger policy. We're very pleased with practically every other aspect of [the Bush administration's] Cuba policy. It would be nice if we could have everything, but sometimes that's not possible."
Another piece of legislation that may not ever see the light of day is the Cuban Solidarity Act, a bill co-sponsored by two senators from opposing sides of the aisle: North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms and Connecticut Democrat Joe Lieberman.
This bill would give $100 million to anti-Castro dissidents within Cuba, though even Hays concedes there's a danger that dissidents accepting U.S. aid would be tainted as Yankee collaborators. However, he said the CANF remains firmly committed to the idea. "When we were putting the bill together, we started on some solid ground," he said. "We looked at the things we did successfully in Eastern Europe and South Africa, and what already is happening in Cuba. I personally send money to somebody who then sends it to help feed the family of a political prisoner to buy books for independent libraries."
He added: "They say they're going to identify and arrest anybody who takes this money. Cuba's system is built upon the idea that the regime controls all aspects of the individual's life. When I used to travel to Cuba, I always met with dissidents. What is wrong with giving people basic tools like pencils and notepads?"
Of course, Hays can't go to Cuba now even if he wanted to because the Castro regime has declared him persona non grata. On that score, he doesn't think other Americans should be traveling to Cuba either, and he seems especially irritated at the idea that tens of thousands of U.S. citizens are flying there through third countries every year, in flagrant violation of U.S. travel restrictions.
"If you go to Cuba, you are directly contributing to the oppression of the Cuban people," he said. "There's no rule of law in Cuba, and the U.S. government is not capable of protecting its citizens in that environment."
Nevertheless, Hays said that "it's very difficult to enforce the travel ban, because there are a variety of ways you can go" to Cuba, such as flying via Canada, Mexico, Jamaica, the Bahamas or the Dominican Republic.
"In general, we support purposeful travel, which is travel where people try to go and help the Cuban people," said Hays, suggesting the government should crack down on tour companies that organize trips to Varadero Beach and other resorts. "People who go and lie on the beach and drink mojitos are not helping the cause of democracy, no matter how much they tip the bellboy. The bottom line is that that money goes to the regime."