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Exile group's implosion could mean loss of influence in Washington.

WASHINGTON -- Turmoil in the Cuban American National Foundation, which has split the powerful organization into warring factions, may damage the lobbying clout of the Cuban exile group and weaken support for US economic sanctions against Havana.

The resignation of 22 CANF directors in early August has left CANF divided into two warring camps. One includes former CANF spokeswoman Ninotska Perez, Alberto Hernandez - who served as interim head of the organization for a year after the death of founder Jorge Mas Canosa - attorney Ignacio Sanchez and former Cuban political prisoner Luis Zuniga. Some of the senior directors who have left the organization are community activists with broad grassroots support in the Cuban American community, like Perez who hosts a popular Miami radio show.

The defectors are pitted against CANF head Jorge Mas Santos, the son of the founder, and his advisers.

Lawsuits are likely

The rift is likely to result in a number of bitter lawsuits. Saying its trademark registration had lapsed, the splinter group claims that it now owns the Cuban American National Foundation name. In addition, the Mas Santos camp has accused the departing directors of stealing organization files and other key documents.

Dennis Hays, CANF executive vice president and head of the group's Washington office, predicted the rump group of directors would lose the "tussle" over the CANF name. He expected there will be a more serious, and lengthy, battle over the organization's documents.

Hays said CANF would survive the chaos that now plagues the organization, just as the exile group has overcome past divisions in its ranks.

An earlier feud was touched off when founder Mas Canosa fired his brother from the CANE Another broke out when Mas Canosa fought with former CANF official Frank Calzon who quit the group and started his own anti-Castro organization, the Center for a Free Cuba, in Washington.

But it's hard to believe the most recent shakeup won't have a lasting effect on the exile community's influence in Washington, which had waned during the Clinton administration and was expected to increase with President George W. Bush in the White House.

Some of those who quit the group indicated they were unhappy that CANF dropped its opposition to Cuban musicians performing in Miami. Mas Santos supported holding the Latin Grammys in Miami this year after the organizers moved them to Los Angeles in 2000 due to protests. Protests against the event this year - again scheduled for Miami - prompted the organizers to move the event again after they became concerned the feud and demonstrators would threaten the ceremony and performers.

The defecting directors also complained that Mas Santos had invited Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT) to a special ceremony in Miami to honor his late father. Mas Santos also reportedly held a fund raiser for Lieberman, who despite the Connecticut senators hard-line stance against Castro, is disliked by some exiles because he was former Vice President Al Gore's running mate.

Gore found little support among Cuban exiles because of his links to Clinton - who exiles condemned as soft on Castro. The former president dropped even lower in their esteem when his administration returned castaway Elian Gonzalez to Cuba.

But other things were at the heart of the dispute at CANE One was the resentment felt by some of the directors over their lack of influence on both the policy and day-to-day operations of the organization. Mas Santos, and Mas Conosa before him, had been criticized by people who say they exerted a near-dictatorial hold over the organization.

Split will be costly

The split may also be costly in terms of the organization's finances. Many of the directors, especially Hernandez, had belonged to the organization since its founding in 1981 and had helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for CANE The directors also were responsible for large donations on their own. The split may also prompt rank-and-file members to defer donations until the dispute quiets down. In any case, some members no doubt will support the directors that resigned, depriving the organization of donors and members.

Charges that group lost focus

Perhaps more galling to the CANF directors that quit was their determination that the organization had strayed from Mas Canosa's core policy aimed at toppling Fidel Castro: maintaining and strengthening longstanding US economic sanctions against Havana.

With powerful farm and business groups winning increased support among Republican lawmakers for an easing of sanctions - and growing indications that Fidel Castro would prefer the embargo to remain in place - Mas Santos shifted the group's focus away from the US embargo. Instead, the CANF pressed for a US indictment of Castro for Cuba's 1996 downing of two planes piloted by exile pilots and for the US funding of dissidents on the island. Most recently, the CANF lobbied black House members for support of a project that would bring black Cuban youths to study in the United States.

"We didn't change goals, we only changed tactics. But they were closely tied to Mas Canosa and were uncomfortable with change," Hays said of disgruntled CANF directors.

While the three Cuban-American House members who are allied with the CANF, Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-FL), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) have maintained their distance in the dispute, their loyalties are expected to lean toward the defecting directors who have supported their political careers and believe maintaining the Cuba embargo should be a priority.

But support for US trade sanctions on Cuba may weaken among other lawmakers who are likely to be alienated by a prolonged and nasty fight in the Cuban exile community.

In addition, CANF's clout will be diluted by the fact that there will not be two group's vying for congressional attention. The soft support for CANF by Cuban legislators will make it hard for the groups to get its message out.
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Title Annotation:Cuban American National Foundation
Publication:America's Insider
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 23, 2001
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