BY LESLEY CLARK | Miami Herald
At the fulcrum of exile politics, the Cuban American National Foundation is getting a new leader in turbulent times.
A young aide to outgoing Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas today will be named executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, a prominent advocacy group that is at the center of seismic changes in the county’s exile politics.
Alfredo Mesa, 29, a senior advisor who began working for Penelas 12 years ago as a high school intern, will head the foundation, which was formed in 1981 by the late Jorge Mas Canosa to push for U.S. policies aimed at undermining Fidel Castro’s rule in Cuba.
Mesa replaces Joe Garcia, a controversial figure in the traditionally Republican-leaning community, who had accused President Bush of failing Cuba and left the post in August to campaign against the Republican president.
Mesa, the youngest of five children of exile parents, has never been to Cuba but said he understands the passion that fuels exiles from Little Havana to the halls of the U.S. Capitol. His three brothers were born in Cuba; he and his sister were born in Miami.
‘‘I know and love Cuba through the eyes and hearts of my parents and grandparents,’’ he said.
In his new post, Mesa faces a challenge at a time that the foundation is a prime target for radio talk show hosts and other critics in the Cuban-American community who accuse Garcia and the group’s current leader, Jorge Mas Santos, son of the founder, of softening its traditionally hard-line approach.
Mesa said part of his strategy will be to bridge the generations and remind the community that it shares a singular hope: ridding Cuba of Castro.
‘‘For me, a goal is to reach out to all generations without excluding any generation,’’ Mesa said. “We are burying too many here in exile. We are losing too many fleeing in the Florida Straits. My generation needs to step up today for the Cuban people.’‘
The foundation suffered a major setback when Mas Canosa died in 1997 and disillusioned members launched a splinter group. Called the Cuban Liberty Council, the group is closely aligned with the Bush administration.
The differing approaches reflect a generational shift in Cuban-American politics. Many Cuban-born exiles support stiff sanctions against the Castro government. Some newly arrived immigrants and some born in the United States advocate more contact with dissident groups in Cuba and suggest that harsh travel restrictions only harm families here and on the island.
Polls show that in the presidential race, Bush’s tough new restrictions on travel and money that can be sent to relatives in Cuba may have cost him points among Cuban-American voters.
Garcia, Mesa’s predecessor at the foundation, took a leading role in urging voters to abandon the president. He worked as a strategist for the New Democrat Network, which raised millions of dollars to target Hispanic voters in Florida and other states.
In the final week of the campaign, Garcia appeared in a controversial television ad, telling Cuban Americans that ‘‘enough is enough,’’ referring to their loyalty to the Republican Party.
Mesa has worked for Penelas, a Democrat, but county observers said he is not particularly partisan. Mesa, who is single, said he is registered as an independent.
‘‘I like to see myself as a consensus builder,’’ he said. “The freedom of Cuba doesn’t belong to any one party.’‘
Garcia said the foundation under Mesa will seek to prepare the community for Castro’s demise by establishing stronger connections between dissidents on the island and Cubans American in Miami.
He said that with Bush promising a veto of any attempt to remove the embargo, and Mel Martinez, a child of Operation Pedro Pan, becoming a U.S. senator, the community’s interests are well represented. Pedro Pan brought unaccompanied Cuban children to Florida in the 1960s.
‘‘The challenge now is to bring in the Cuban-American community, the opposition on the island in communion with each other,’’ Garcia said. “The life span of the dictatorship is reaching its biological finale, and there will be an opportunity for Cubans to share in the benefits of freedom.’‘
Penelas, who hired Mesa as a teenager, said the native of Miami is uniquely qualified to bridge divides in the community after successfully weathering the politics of Miami-Dade County government. A graduate of Westchester’s Christopher Columbus High School, Mesa is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in public administration at Florida International University.
‘‘He’s all about bringing people together,’’ Penelas said. “He’s dealt with hundreds of organizations and thousands of individuals, some who like the mayor’s office, some who flat out dislike the mayor’s office, but Alfredo has always been able to create consensus.’‘