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Fidel Castro turned 75 last week with the Cuban dictator’s health in some question. But after spending decades waiting for its nemesis to die, the Cuban American National Foundation, the venerable and vitriolic anti-Castro organization, is finally getting on with its life. Its image battered last year by its militant opposition to the return home of Cuban refugee child Elian Gonzalez, the foundation is now, for the first time, focusing on its role in a Cuba after Castro and in an America after Elian. “I think sometimes our message was lost in our passion,” says the foundation’s new Washington, D.C., director, Dennis Hays. Hays is a product of the foundation’s new approach. A longtime State Department official and former ambassador to Suriname, Hays isn’t Cuban-American. He’s a professional diplomat and lobbyist. And he was brought aboard in an attempt to restore the foundation’s credibility both on Capitol Hill and with the public in general. Hiring Hays is just a part of that scheme. Another part involves stepping back from the shrill anti-Communism rhetoric that once defined the foundation and presenting a more balanced, more appealing face instead. This foundation wants to become more involved in making connections on the island of Cuba, less involved with fiercely lobbying legislators to preserve the 41-year U.S. embargo of Cuba. It wants to talk more about human rights abuses committed by the current regime and less about sins committed back when Castro took hold of the island. “Our rhetoric wasn’t apropos for the times,” says the Miami-based foundation’s new executive director, Joe Garcia. “The Cuban-Americans have always been good at preaching to the choir, but when you look at the church, there aren’t that many people there.” The move forward has already come at some cost. Two weeks ago, 22 members of the foundation’s board of directors in Miami resigned in protest. They included some of the group’s oldest — and most conservative — members, including their former spokesperson. But for those who stayed, it became a matter of changing with the times or risk becoming something worse than ineffective — irrelevant. While the foundation last year fussed and fretted about keeping Elian in the United States, Congress rammed holes in the once-impregnable embargo, allowing food and medicine shipments to Cuba. It was viewed as a sign that the foundation’s time — like the Soviet-style Communism it vowed to combat — had passed. “We were darlings of the Cold War,” Garcia says. “But then the Cold War ended.” MAXIMUM LEADER For most of its life, the foundation didn’t need a special Washington presence. It had at its disposal, instead, an icon. Jorge Mas Canosa ran the foundation (and, some said, U.S. policy toward Cuba) with an iron grip until his death in 1997. Senators and congressmen answered his calls, took his meetings, and gave him what he needed to battle Castro, whether it was legislation to tighten the embargo or money for pro-America Radio Mart�. In return, he provided the political support of South Florida’s Cuban community. In Miami, the foundation, with a board of 140 affluent and hard-wired members of the community, stood at the center of Cuban politics. More moderate elements were not tolerated. Any talk of building relationships — political, economic, or cultural — to the island was heresy. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 ended Cuba’s place as a strategic threat. And Mas Canosa’s death in 1997 seemed to leave a vacuum in leadership. His son Jorge Mas Santos, who now serves as chairman of the foundation, came off as smaller, more ineffective. In the space left by the changing times and the death of Mas Canosa, dissenting voices were heard. The agribusiness lobby, seeing opportunity in an untapped market 90 miles from the United States, aggressively pushed for an end to the embargo. And restrictions on sending money to Cuba’s impoverished families were eased. It all left the foundation looking for its sea legs. The Elian affair provided the perfect opportunity to recapture the foundation’s fading glory. But, instead, it backfired. The foundation’s claims that Elian would become a brainwashed puppet of Castro’s regime sounded woefully retro to mainstream America. “It was counterproductive,” says Delvis Fern�ndez Levy, president of the Cuban American Alliance Education Fund, the kind of moderate anti-embargo, pro-travel group that couldn’t exist in Mas Canosa’s heyday. “It made it appear that the U.S. had empowered a small community of immigrants to an unprecedented degree.” BREAKING GROUND The foundation’s new Washington headquarters, like the foundation itself, is a bit unsettled. Labeled “The Embassy for Free Cuba,” it sits with rooms unfurnished. And as a reminder of its inescapable past, a glossy biography of Mas Canosa greets visitors. One irony is immediately apparent. The 19th century rowhouse is decorated with Art Deco posters from Havana’s glamour days, advertising travel to Cuba (“Havana, The City Of Charm”). The foundation, despite its restructuring, remains steadfastly pro-embargo and against travel to the island. But one glance at Dennis Hays and it becomes clear that this isn’t your father’s foundation. He has an academic’s bearing and a policymaker’s vocabulary. And he is unmistakably Anglo. “It’s an American face,” says Richard Nuccio, who served as the Clinton administration’s point man for Cuba policy. “Not to say Cubans aren’t Americans. But they are hyphenated Americans, and Dennis does not come off as a hyphenated American.” Hays established his bona fides to the Cuban community as the State Department’s coordinator for Cuban affairs from 1993 to 1995. He endeared himself further when he resigned over the Clinton administration’s policy of forcible repatriation of Cuban nationals found at sea. “Dennis is a true believer,” the foundation’s Garcia says. “He has been to Cuba. He is someone who has credibility on Cuba policy. He brings that tone. We need people like that because the transition is coming.” Hays says he helps provide that credibility (as well as his existing relationships within the current State Department) precisely because he isn’t a Cuban-American from South Florida. In other words, he says, it doesn’t look like he is governed by self-interest in trying to undermine Castro. “No one can accuse me of wanting to get my plantation back,” Hays says. Hays says he wants to reach out to the academic and business communities in order to re-educate Americans about Castro’s dictatorship. He also wants to de-emphasize the foundation’s historic lobbying role. Part of that, he admits, is because the support continues to build in Congress for loosening the embargo. “We’re three years behind what the Cubans have been doing on the agricultural front,” he says. The foundation’s new direction was at the root of the mass resignations earlier this month in Miami. “With Jorge Mas Canosa, we had to keep an unbreakable line,” Diego Suarez, a Miami business leader and one of the resigning board members, told The New York Times. “There was no kind of tolerance with Fidel or Raul Castro. Today, the word used in the foundation is that ‘we must be tolerant.’ “ AID AND COMFORT Even the foundation’s lobbying efforts are turning toward activity on the island of Cuba itself. Right now, Hays’ attention is focused on pushing through a bill co-sponsored by Sens. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., that would provide $100 million in American funds to dissidents in Cuba. It comes in concert with the foundation’s new coordinated effort to send private funds to family members and dissidents there. “It’s not that people hate Castro less,” Hays says. “But they love their grandmother more.” It is a significant departure for the foundation to become involved in sending money to the island. For years, the fear in Miami was that the money would undoubtedly end up in Castro’s pocket, or that the dissidents receiving the money would be spies working for his government. “Do we expect the Cuban government to steal a great deal of it? Of course we do,” Garcia says. “But these are people who have shown a commitment to freedom. [The U.S.] did that in Poland. Who do you think kept the labor unions alive?” The Helms-Lieberman bill, still in committee, has its critics. Nuccio is one of them. “The money is all out of proportion to what could be usefully absorbed by the dissident community,” he says. And, he says, receipt of American money will expose Cuban dissidents to a greater risk of arrest and imprisonment by the Cuban government. The foundation’s involvement and its hard-line stance toward Cuba, he says, increases that risk. “The language of the exile community itself puts them in jeopardy,” Nuccio says. The Cuban American Alliance’s Fern�ndez Levy says he is mistrustful of the foundation’s sudden interest in getting involved in the island’s dissident community. “They are representative of an element of Cuban-American society that has had very little contact with the real Cuba,” he says. “I don’t know of a single dissident that looks favorably on [the money].” In contrast to the foundation, Fern�ndez Levy, who came to the United States in 1957, has maintained an active relationship with Cuba. He helps create “sister city” relationships between American cities and Cuban towns, spearheads cultural exchanges, and supports full travel between the two countries. He says he fears that the foundation wants to assert its dominance on the island in the same way it did so in Miami — using American investment. “When you channel that much money from here to there, you have to have employees,” he says. “It’s about turf and perks.” Sally Grooms Cowal, a former ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago and the president of the newly formed anti-embargo Cuba Policy Foundation in Washington, is also suspicious of funneling money to dissidents. “It implies that we can pick the right horse to back, which we have never been very good at,” she says. And Nuccio says he suspects that much of the money will wind up in South Florida in much the same way it did during Mas Canosa’s time. “Most of that money will never see Cuba,” he says. “It will end up helping George Bush’s campaign in Florida.” WAITING FOR THE DAY But Garcia, who at 36 and as a former Miami-Dade County official is also representative of the new generation of Cuban-American power in Miami, disagrees. “We will not take a penny of those funds,” he says. “We want the future government to be made of the tortured, not the torturers. Freedom in Cuba is going to depend on those people.” In fact, he and Hays have a wider vision than simply providing money to spark dissent on the island. Garcia wants to provide scholarship money for students and loans for small business. Hays talks about sending in Internet connections to allow Cuban citizens access to the Web. “For 41 years, nobody would talk about a Cuba without Castro,” Hays says. “You have to create little pockets of a civil society so that the place doesn’t collapse entirely when the moment comes. We see it coming.”

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