Joe Garcia of the Cuban-American National Foundation
Castro at 75: 'Post-Elian' image control
By Porter Anderson
(CNN) -- "The only positive thing that one can say about Castro is that he's 75 and doesn't have much longer to go on this road."
Joe Garcia, the 37-year-old executive director of the Cuban-American National Foundation offered no happy returns of the day to President Fidel Castro.
"It's not a sad day for us," the Cuban-American population based in South Florida. "We live in the world's greatest democracy, we want for nothing. And that which we want, we can work toward achieving. (But that's) something that's not a reality in today's Cuba. What is a reality is that a dictator celebrates 75 years, the majority of it in the supreme position of power in Cuban government. ... So this is a difficult day."
Monday's celebrations in Cuba were being welcomed by many as far from difficult. There were Castro-honoring marches, cakes were being cut, and newspapers ran huge pictures and retrospective articles about the president, who was in Venezuela on a state visit.
CNN Havana Bureau Chief Lucia Newman has pointed out that even Cuban dissidents in-country are saying they'd rather see a gradual, controlled transition to an open-market society after Castro leaves office than the sort of quick changes that have generated hardships in the former Soviet Union.
"But it marks, to some degree, a failure on our part to communicate the message," says Garcia. "The reason there's not a dictatorship in Chile, and that there's a democracy in South Africa and Portugal today -- and that Haiti has a nascent democracy -- is that the world community as a whole felt outraged. This is the reason Milosevic sits in a jail in The Hague. It's because the world has said, 'Enough.'
"This is the message we need to get out about Cuba."
Garcia is the son of a car washer and a waitress, both from Cuba. He was born in the United States and took his law degree at the University of Miami.
His wife, Aileen Ugalde, is also an attorney and now works at Garcia's alma mater -- she's the assistant (Garcia likes to call her "chief of staff") to Donna E. Shalala. The Clinton cabinet's Secretary of Health and Human Services. Shalala took over in June as president of the university.
"Our child is being raised as a proxy," Garcia jokes about the strain of his and Ugalde's demanding careers, "but we hope some day to get the proxy back through negotiations. And in public life, the longer you're in, the poorer you are."
Garcia -- a man who laughs frequently and clearly appreciates ironies where he finds them in his work -- enjoys saying that he arrived at the poverty of public life "by a circuitous route. In undergraduate school, I chose a career path that always leads to certain unemployment: I majored in politics and public affairs with a double-minor in philosophy and history.
"Looking for a job, I was working with the Salvadoran American Foundation, a humanitarian aid group, and from there I got an offer from the Cuban-American National Foundation. A friend of mine was director, and they were going to run a program called the Exodus Relief Fund -- private, humanitarian resettlement of Cuban refugees, no cost to the American taxpayer.
"I did my job so well that in six years I'd gotten rid of all the refugees living in third countries. And in the interim, I'd gotten my law degree -- a little bit more practical. A friend of mine was stepping down from the Florida Public Service Commission," which regulates the state's investor-owned utilities.
"I knew the governor, applied for that job, was fortunate enough to be selected, did that job for six years and left as chairman of the commission, which regulated the telephone, electricity, gas and private water companies in the state of Florida."
After six years of shelling out what he says was $2,500 monthly to cover his travel costs from Miami to Tallahassee -- expenses not covered by the state -- he jumped at a chance to return to the Cuban-American National Foundation. He'd been approached by a group of influential members of the organization's 150-member board talking about the "post-Elian" Gonzalez task ahead.
Garcia is candid about the fact that as the highest-ranking appointed Hispanic state officer in Florida, he was being offered, in essence, a damage-control job. "One of the first things we did was a public-opinion survey, spending almost $120,000 to conduct it. What came back was that Cuban-Americans were not popular" following the fiercely contested return of Gonzalez to his native Cuba.
"Our ability to communicate the issue about Elian had failed miserably. It was suddenly politically OK to call us 'those people.'"
Garcia has spent a year now "refocusing, cleaning up our image, becoming more streamlined, and concentrating on the essentials of policy." He talks of using a "bifurcated" message that's aimed, partly at Cuba and the South Florida Cuban-American community, and partly at the rest of the nation.
"On the national level, we have the luxury of having hired Dennis Hays," the Cuban policy expert, running the Washington office of the foundation. "And here in Miami?" -- Garcia pauses for a moment to set up his wry line -- "Here in Miami, we just throw rocks at each other."
But in South Florida's Cuban-American community, there's little bifurcation of message when it comes to Castro's 42-year government. Patience, even among the most reasoned detractors, now is as thin as a fine cigar leaf.
"We look forward," says Joe Garcia, "to when Fidel Castro's birthday gives way to the possibility of celebrating democracy in Cuba."
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