South Florida

Jorge Mas Canosa dead at 58

NOTE: This article was originally published in the Miami Herald on Nov. 24, 1997.

Jorge Mas Canosa, a fiery and proud self-made millionaire who ushered exile politics from the streets of Miami to the halls of Washington, died early Sunday afternoon at his home off Old Cutler Road. He was 58.

Mas Canosa, a controversial figure who was often mentioned as a candidate for president in a democratic Cuba, succumbed in Miami without witnessing his fervent dream: the end of Fidel Castro's reign.

Aides said he died at 1:46 p.m. of lung cancer, respiratory failure and congestive heart failure. The family had never publicly disclosed that Mas Canosa suffered from cancer. He had been diagnosed earlier this year with Paget's disease, a painful affliction that damages the bones but is not life-threatening.

Although he never sought public office, Mas Canosa cut an outsize profile in Miami and became the most influential Cuban power broker in South Florida.

His death is a blow to many Cuban exiles, who relied on him for nearly two decades to guide their hope of a homecoming into reality. Among Mas Canosa's many antagonists, few doubted that Castro would be first to find comfort in his death.

Behind him, Mas Canosa left the indelible legacy of a determined and shrewd crusader: a rapidly growing construction company that now claims nearly a half-billion dollars in annual revenue and an exile lobby that politicians of all stripes find impossible to ignore.

He is survived by his wife, Irma, and sons, Jorge Mas Jr., Juan Carlos Mas and Jose Ramon Mas. Jorge Mas Jr. continues at the helm of MasTec Inc., the construction firm Mas Canosa launched in 1969 under the name Church & Tower and rechristened in 1994.

The son of an army veterinarian from Santiago de Cuba, Mas Canosa -- the third of six children -- quickly established himself as strong-willed. Neighborhood friends recalled him leading marching drills at the private, paramilitary high school he attended, and later using a radio broadcast to challenge the failing regime of President Fulgencio Batista.

As a law student in Oriente, Mas Canosa ran afoul of Castro's revolutionary government and fled to Miami on July 15, 1960. He later claimed that he avoided prison by winning over Castro guards with "a beautiful piece of oratory."

He took part in the thwarted Bay of Pigs invasion, though his unit never disembarked on the Cuban coast.

In his first years of exile, as hundreds of thousands of fellow Cubans streamed into South Florida, Mas Canosa teetered between the mundane task of earning a living -- he sold shoes and delivered milk in Little Havana -- and taking part in the anti-Castro group RECE, which plotted raids against the island.

Although RECE's achievements amounted to little more than minor intrigue, colleagues recall that Mas Canosa plunged into the guerrilla-style campaign with unusual intensity. He arranged for the outfitting of an old B-26 bomber for attacks on Cuban oil refineries, and he had a friend buttonhole a U.S. general at an Orlando country club to ask advice about launching missiles from small boats. Neither scheme advanced.

Through a RECE contact, Mas Canosa got his first break in business. He was tapped to open a Miami branch of a Puerto Rico-based construction firm. Under Mas Canosa's tutelage, the company went on to become Church & Tower and thrived.

In 1994, after fabulous growth, the firm went public as MasTec. The company is now valued at about $700 million; the family's share is $400 million.

Such was the synergy that underlay Mas Canosa's success. His politics benefited his business dealings and vice versa.

Friends praised his moxie as he built a company primarily through public contracts. But critics charged that Mas Canosa exploited his profile as an exile leader for financial gain, and conversely, that he used his money to raise his status with public officials.

As Mas Canosa mastered that game, he set about trying to find a more effective way to combat Castro. After nearly two decades in exile, it was apparent to Mas Canosa that those advocating violence against the Castro regime were no closer to deposing the Cuban leader.

Mas Canosa's idea was that exiles should operate within the American system, using U.S. might and resources to hobble, if not crush, the Cuban revolution.

"We can defeat a communist tyranny in our sphere of influence without shooting one bullet," he once said. At the height of his influence, he mused: "If our people had had this knowledge of how the American system works in 1961, the Bay of Pigs would never have failed."

In 1981, Mas Canosa and a handful of wealthy exiles launched the Cuban American National Foundation. The tax-exempt foundation, which also had a political action committee and lobbying arm, was the brainchild of Richard Allen, President Reagan's first national security adviser. Allen argued that anti-communist Cuban exiles should have a voice in Washington akin to that of the influential pro-Israel group AIPAC, American-Israel Political Action Committee.

The foundation's first triumph was the creation of Radio Marti, a U.S. government radio station that broadcast news and entertainment to the island. Radio Marti, which went on the air in 1985, effectively broke the Castro monopoly on news inside the island and won a large Cuban audience.

It was a most treasured achievement for Mas Canosa. Long after he eased the reins on his business and other concerns of the foundation, Mas Canosa clung to his post as chairman of the president's Advisory Board on Cuba Broadcasting, which gave him considerable influence over Radio Marti. Named to the three-year advisory stint in 1985, Mas Canosa warded off threats to replace him for nine years. Presidents Bush and Clinton left him alone.

For all its success, critics say Radio Marti became a monument to Mas Canosa's authoritarian streak and his disregard for U.S. regulations. The station's staff was convulsed by internal battles from the start -- largely pitting Mas Canosa loyalists against his foes. Nonetheless, it became a favored pulpit for Mas Canosa to broadcast his views to Cuba.

By carefully winning over lawmakers in Washington from both sides of the aisle, Mas Canosa and the foundation secured tens of millions in annual funding for Radio Marti and its television cousin. The survival of TV Marti -- now seven years old -- is a remarkable tribute to the foundation's clout. Despite TV Marti's mission, no one claims to have seen it on the island for more than a few seconds at a time.

Though Mas Canosa cast a wide net in Washington with campaign contributions to conservatives and liberals alike, he was drawn to anti-communist hardliners abroad.

Operating under the apparent emblem that the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend, Mas Canosa toured the world to embrace those who had spurned Castro or Marxist rule. Among them: Russia's Boris Yeltsin, the anti-Sandinista contras, Argentine President Carlos Menem and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.\

Though he usually temporized when asked about his Cuban presidential ambitions, Mas Canosa moved with the trappings of a head of state, relying on bodyguards, an armored car and a private jet. He received immediate access to Miami's Spanish-language radio stations and commanded the attention of local, state and federal officials.

With a mixture of charm and persistence, Mas Canosa often extracted commitments from the uninitiated to join the fight against Castro. Florida Sens. Bob Graham and Connie Mack took their lead from him on most policy matters affecting the island, as did other senators from as far afield as Connecticut, New Jersey and South Carolina and virtually every South Florida representative.

Mas Canosa's leadership also touched the lives of some exiles on a more immediate basis. Through the foundation's Exodus program -- which was given near-autonomy by the U.S. immigration service -- as many as 10,000 Cuban exiles were allowed to resettle in the United States from third countries.

Earlier this year, his family presented 12 Miami students with a total of $100,000 in academic scholarships. Such deeds won Mas Canosa plaudits. Polls show that he was extremely popular among exiles like himself, drawing approval ratings upwards of 80 percent.

It was a support base of which he was supremely confident.

"I am not running a popularity contest," he said in a 1988 interview. "It came about that I am the most popular guy in the Cuban community because when you are in a leadership role, you must educate the people. If the people don't believe you in the beginnning, you will prove to them that you are right and make them follow you."

As much as he was respected in some quarters, he was feared in others. Mas Canosa was utterly unyielding in his view that any effort to engage Havana in dialogue or trade was a trap laid by Castro himself.

Those who questioned such a view often were hit by withering personal attacks from Mas Canosa, who occasionally accused them of racism or communist sympathies.

At times, even Mas Canosa's colleagues felt his wrath, prompting some to believe that he loathed a rival as much as any ideological challenge. A co-founder of the foundation, its former executive director, an ex-chief of Radio Marti, even longtime political prisoner Armando Valladares clashed with Mas Canosa, as did others. Several emerged the worse for it.

In an episode that has become part of Miami lore, then city Commissioner Joe Carollo, another nemesis, accused Mas Canosa of using his status as exile leader to win a $130 million city contract. Mas Canosa called Carollo a "coward" and challenged him to a duel.

Mas Canosa was no less bellicose with this newspaper, with whose coverage and commentary he frequently disagreed.

After The Herald editorialized against one Mas-backed initiative in 1992, Mas accused the newspaper of being a Castro pawn and of acting against Cuban-American interests. He spearheaded an anti-Herald campaign -- complete with bumper stickers and billboards that read, "I don't believe The Herald."

The campaign eventually turned ugly. A Herald executive received an anonymous death threat, and newspaper vending machines were vandalized. The dispute drew national attention by media, human rights and press advocacy groups.

Even his own family was not immune from Mas Canosa's ire. In 1990, a Miami jury ruled that he libeled his brother in a business dispute. It awarded Ricardo Mas $900,000 in damages.

Fortunately for Mas Canosa, his greatest political challenge came at the peak of his powers. After the foundation had been nurtured for a decade by Republican leaders, a Democrat, Bill Clinton, appeared poised to run away with the 1992 elections, putting the White House in the hands of a Democrat for the first time since Jimmy Carter, who had pressed for easing up on Castro.

In a marriage of opportunity that might be in a primer on lobbying, Mas Canosa -- a Republican committed to vote for President Bush -- sought Clinton's endorsement of new embargo-tightening legislation. In return, Mas Canosa declared that exiles were free to contribute to Clinton and vote for him by endorsing his anti-communist credentials.

"I like it," candidate Clinton said of the proposed Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, which Bush had so far spurned. Clinton came close to winning Florida that year.

But Mas Canosa's alliance with Clinton hit rough waters over another deal. This time, a top administration official negotiated a plan with Cuban diplomat Ricardo Alarcon to forcibly repatriate Cuban rafters. The secret bargain in 1995 came as tens of thousands of refugees languished at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay after interception at sea.

After fulminating over the president's betrayal, Mas Canosa vowed to find a way in Congress to prevent U.S. presidents from striking further deals with Havana. It was a tall order: No president wanted to sign legislation that would diminish his own authority, particularly in the foreign policy arena.

With new elections looming, Mas Canosa helped win challenger Bob Dole's endorsement of the proposed Helms-Burton bill. This time, Clinton was the incumbent president left muttering his objections, while his rival basked in Little Havana's cheers.

When Cuban fighter jets shot down two unarmed planes flown by the exile group Brothers to the Rescue, Clinton swallowed hard and signed the bill, saying Castro had brought the punishment upon himself.

The controversial law was designed to scare off foreign investors -- including those earning millions in the Cuban phone system coveted by Mas Canosa. But it also codified the U.S. embargo against Cuba into law, wresting control over the sanctions from the White House and placing it in Congress, where Mas Canosa commanded an airtight majority in key committees.

After years of insisting that Mas Canosa was unknown in Cuba, the Castro government itself handed the exile leader one of his last victories. Cuban diplomat Alarcon, who had long dismissed Mas Canosa as unknown in Cuba and an enemy of its people, validated the exile leader's importance by appearing with him in a televised debate.

In virtually everything he did, Mas Canosa insisted his life would not be complete until Castro was gone and he had returned home. It was a sentiment lost on many who never experienced exile. For those who did, it made his early death all the more poignant.

"I am a misunderstood man," he said in a 1992 interview in Miami. "I have never assimilated. I never intended to. I am a Cuban first. I live here only as an extension of Cuba."


July 1960: Mas Canosa comes to Miami.

1969: Mas Canosa launches his construction firm, Church & Tower.

March 1981: The Cuban American National Foundation is created, modeled after the American Israeli Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Mas Canosa becomes chairman.

August 1981: In its first major public foray, the foundation lobbies the U.S. Congress for passage of Radio Marti.

April 1982: Mas Canosa becomes a U.S. citizen.

September 1982: Foundation members pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into political campaigns, looking to defeat U.S. lawmakers who favor improving relations with Castro and lifting the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

May 1983: President Reagan visits Miami as a guest of the foundation.

October 1983: President Reagan signs the Radio Broadcasting to Cuba Act, creating Radio Marti. The station goes on the air in May of 1985.

May 1984: President Reagan nominates Mas Canosa to chair the Advisory Board for Broadcasting to Cuba.

August 1987: A feud develops between foundation members and then City of Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo. Eventually, Mas Canosa challenges Carollo to a duel after Carollo scotches a $130-million venture backed by Mas Canosa.

March 1988: Mas Canosa and other foundation members travel to Angola to show support for CIA-backed anti-Communist fighters of the UNITA rebel faction.

September 1989: Boris Yeltsin visits Miami on a trip partly financed by the foundation.

September 1991: Mas Canosa and other foundation members travel to Moscow, stepping up pressure on Russian leaders to abandon Castro.

August 1992: Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton and Mas Canosa meet over dinner at Versailles restaurant. After a second meeting in Tampa, the foundation says Cuban exiles "need not fear a Bill Clinton administration."

March 1994: Shareholders approve the merger of Mas Canosa's company, Church and Tower, with Burnup & Simms of Palm Beach. The new company is named MasTec Inc. Family-owned stock is now valued in excess of $780 million.

September 1994: Through Exodus, a program financed by the foundation, more than 10,000 Cuban refugees stranded in foreign countries come to the United States.

July 1995: The foundation promotes the Helms-Burton bill to tighten the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. President Clinton signs it into law in 1996.

September 1996: Mas Canosa and Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's National Assembly, debate on Spanish-language television. It is the first such public debate between a top exile leader and a Cuban communist since Castro seized power in 1959.

May 1997: Mas Canosa reveals he is suffering from Paget's disease.

September 1997: The Mas Canosa family buys the 17-story Mediterranean-style Freedom Tower in downtown Miami for $4.2 million and promises to turn it into a museum of Cuban exile heritage.

September 28, 1997: Mas Canosa enters the Pan American Hospital intensive care unit.

October 13, 1997: Mas Canosa goes home from hospital.

November 23, 1997: Mas Canosa dies at home.

What they said

Jorge was a born leader and organizer whose tenacity, strength of conviction and passion I greatly admired. He galvanized his community, his adopted country and people around the world for the cause of freedom and democracy in Cuba.

President Bill Clinton

Florida and the whole country have lost a valiant patriot, a man who moved confidently through the corridors of power of many nations but who never lost his common touch.

Gov. Lawton Chiles

Mr. Mas Canosa's life will serve as an inspiration to our community of what one individual's commitment and passion can accomplish.

Alex Penelas, Miami-Dade mayor

It is one of the saddest moments in the history of the Cuban exile community. It will leave a great void in the exile community and in the halls of power in Washington.

Lula Rodriguez, Deputy Assistant Secretary of state for public affairs

He was a good friend to everyone who loved democracy, and his contributions to his community and his people will be missed.

George Knox, Miami attorney and civic leader

When the story of the 20th Century is written for South Florida, there will surely be page after page on Jorge Mas. His influence extended far beyond his own community, extending especially to Washington and Cuba. No one worked harder for freedom for Cuba.

David Lawrence Jr., publisher of The Herald

Jorge Mas Canosa was under any analysis an exceptional man. He was the greatest adversary in the Cuban world of Fidel Castro. Castro had to have contempt but also admiration for the man.

Maurice Ferre, former Miami mayor

This is a great loss for the United States and the Cuban people throughout the world, and all those who have taken great risks for freedom.

U.S. Sen. Bob Graham

He would not wish that the pain of his passing cause pessimism among Cuba's freedom fighters. Our best tribute to his memory is to continue the fight until Cuba is free.

U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart

His death is a serious blow to the efforts of free Cubans in the United States to influence a strong American policy toward Fidel Castro. We Cubans will have to think very hard about how to deal with a loss of this magnitude.

Frank Calzon, director of the Cuba Project of Freedom House and former executive director of the foundation.