Cuban exile leader dies
Jorge Mas's power base influenced U.S. policy
November 23, 1997
Web posted at: 11:32 p.m. EST (0432 GMT)
MIAMI (CNN) -- Jorge Mas Canosa, the leader of the Cuban
American National Foundation, a powerful anti-Castro Cuban
exile group, died from cancer Sunday in Miami, his doctor
said. He was 58.
As founder and chairman of the foundation, Mas
harnessed the political power of Cubans who fled Fidel
Castro's regime after the 1959 Cuban revolution, and he built
a lobbying group widely regarded as one of the most effective
"He's known how to operate in this strange system of
government that is Washington," said U.S. Rep. Ileana
Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American Republican from Miami. "You've
got to know how to get your point across and move hearts and
minds, and he has been able to do it."
His was an uncompromising voice against easing American
sanctions on Cuba's communist regime or normalizing relations
between Washington and Havana.
During the Reagan administration, Mas helped
Republicans solidify their political base among anti-Castro
Cubans, forming an alliance that catapulted him to national
At a news conference Sunday, the president of the foundation,
Pepe Hernandez, vowed that the organization would continue
Mas's work and that supporters should "not be
Low-key reaction in Cuba
In his native Cuba, where Mas was frequently vilified
for his anti-Castro activities, there was little immediate
reaction Sunday to news of his death, either in the media or
by government officials.
But a senior Cuban official had told CNN a few weeks ago,
when it appeared that Mas's health might be waning,
that "we do not wish death on anyone, but certainly we would
not be mourning his passing."
On Sunday, his son, Jorge Jr., said "it is sad my father will
never see a free (Cuba)."
He called his father a "patriot" and said that while his body
may have died, "We have not lost his soul, because what (he)
represents ... will always be with us and in our hearts."
Mas's health has been the subject of speculation in
Miami since he was hospitalized in September. His family and
the foundation gave few details of his illness, saying only
that he suffered from Paget's disease, a hereditary malady
that is not usually fatal.
His doctor, Alberto Hernandez, told reporters Sunday that Mas
Canosa died of cancer.
Even foes in awe of political clout
After fleeing Cuba to Florida, Mas became a
successful businessman. He built a small family
telecommunications firm, MasTech, into a $475 million public
company. He and his son have been featured on lists of the
nation's 10 richest Hispanic citizens.
But it was in the political arena that Mas had his
greatest triumphs. Even his foes expressed awe at how he was
able to shape American policy toward his homeland.
"Had it not been for Jorge Mas, we probably would have
had normal relations with Cuba," said Wayne Smith, who headed
the U.S. Interest Section in Havana during the Carter
administration and was once sued for libel by Mas. "He
has almost single-handedly blocked all that."
In a statement Sunday, the three Cuban Americans in the U.S.
House -- Ros-Lehtinen, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Florida,
and Rep. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey -- said they had lost
a "dear friend."
"(In) Jorge Mas's passing, we have lost an ardent
fighter who never ceased in his efforts to free the beloved,
enslaved island," they said, adding that the best tribute to
him would be "to continue the fight until Cuba is free."
Radio Marti, Helms-Burton among achievements
Among Mas's legislative achievements were the creation
of Radio Marti and TV Marti, stations designed to beam
information into Cuba but which are jammed by the Cuban
He also pushed for the Helms-Burton Act, a controversial 1996
law under which the United States can file lawsuits against
firms from other countries doing business with Cuba. That law
has prompted criticism from U.S. allies, especially
Canada and countries in Latin America.
"Jorge has been a very important part of shaping U.S.-Cuba
policy for a number of years, formulating and passing
important legislation," said Ros-Lehtinen. "Without (him),
none of that legislation would have been enacted into law."
In 1996, he went on international TV to debate the head of
Cuba's parliament, Ricardo Alarcon, displaying his skills as
an orator and communicator.
Recently, he and his foundation had success in convincing
countries other than the United States -- notably Spain and
Nicaragua -- to take a harder line against Castro.
Called ruthless by detractors
But Mas also had his detractors, some of whom say he
was an arrogant megalomaniac prone to tirades -- and that he
was ruthless when it came to battling his enemies.
He was also very willing to take on the press, suing the New
Republic after it portrayed him as "mobster." The magazine
settled the case and apologized.
In the early 1990s, upset by what The Miami Herald had
written about him, Mas led a campaign against the
paper, flooding Miami with bumper stickers and billboards
saying "I don't believe The Herald."
Havana Bureau Chief Lucia Newman contributed to this report.