Meeting Jorge Mas Canosa was like walking into a hurricane. He was a force of nature driven by gusts of ambition and love that swirled around a calm eye of Latin charm.
That storm entered my congressional office in the spring of 1986. The Cuban American National Foundation had achieved prominence with its calculated embrace of Ronald Reagan. Mastec, the Florida corporation he founded, was feeding off the national thirst for technology. But, mostly, the deadly strife in Central America had Fidel Castro back in the news.
We were an unlikely pair. A liberal suburban congressman, the product of the post-war American middle class, listened attentively to this Cuban émigré, who this year will have been dead for two decades. Revolution forced him from his homeland, and he was on a mission to destroy Castro’s regime. It would become one of the most important relationships of my life.
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Castro occupied a special place for my generation. He was the animated figure on television. He factored into our parents’ decision to pile canned food, water, and radios in our basements. Before Vietnam, there was Castro interrupting the rhythm of American life with tirades and revolution.
Canosa understood the moment. The network that he built in Congress was formidable and strengthened by Cuba’s meddling in Africa and Central America. The latent hostility of my generation was fuel in search of a match.
Castro’s revolution had produced little more than a Soviet client state now threatened by perestroika. The Cold War was ending, and the last soldier on the field was Fidel Castro. The moment was right to make a move.
Late in 1991, on a boat off Coral Gables, we met to draft sanctions that would draw a line. The Cuban Democracy Act would plug the holes of the Kennedy embargo and present a choice between democratic reforms and economic strangulation. Ships that called upon Cuban ports could not visit the United States. European affiliates of American companies were banned from investment. Remunerations were limited. We would isolate post-Soviet Cuba from hard currency but flood it with ideas. The United States would offer new telephone cables, news bureaus, and travel by students and journalists. The price of escaping the sanctions was certification of progress toward a free press, multiparty elections, and the freeing of political prisoners. It was Castro’s choice.
Opposition from the George H.W. Bush administration was immediate. Castro, it was argued, just needed more time. He’d reform, and the end of the Cold War would bring change. Our best ally was Castro.
But as economic conditions worsened, so did repression.
Canosa’s ambitions might would have faltered if not for a rising star in the Democratic Party. Bill Clinton was a Democrat who wanted to build a new coalition. He recognized the conflicting realities of Bush’s opposition to new sanctions and Florida as the new pivot point of American presidential politics.
When Clinton’s aide, George Stephanopoulos, called to announce that the likely Democratic nominee would be endorsing my bill, success was assured. Congressional passage followed, and the Bush administration was quickly on board.
No moment in my congressional career is the source of more questions. Were the sanctions that Canosa produced the right thing? Didn’t they fail to change the Cuban regime? That’s all true but Cuba never armed another revolution. Economic isolation ended military adventurism.
The most important memory for me, however, wasn’t the policy at all. The Bush White House didn’t invite me to the signing of my own bill. Canosa was handed the signing pen by a beaming Bush. Before the event concluded, he left the White House and drove to my office where he handed me the pen as we embraced. The Cuban émigré who fled Communist revolution had taken a stand and moved his new nation.
Robert Torricelli served as a U.S. senator from New Jersey from 1997 to 2003.