BY CASEY WOODS | MiamiHerald.com
The Cuban American National Foundation was still in its infancy when it accomplished what would have been unthinkable two years before: A sitting U.S. president flew to Miami for an event that highlighted the fledgling organization’s dream for a free Cuba.
‘‘There had been no coherent message given in Washington about the aspirations of the Cuban exile community until Jorge Mas Canosa opened the foundation office in 1981,’’ said former Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich, who as an administrator in the State Department joined President Ronald Reagan on the 1983 trip.
``As someone who’s spent my entire career in Washington, I can say that it’s remarkable that in just two years an organization could persuade the political office of the White House to take a risk on an organization that was so young.’‘
This weekend, the organization that pushed the Cuban exile cause to national prominence celebrates its 25th anniversary with great fanfare during its annual conference—one scheduled to include national and international speakers such as Nicaraguan presidential candidate Jos� Rizo and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat eyeing a bid for the presidency in 2008.
‘‘This represents a quarter century of victories and sacrifice by so many men and women who worked toward the common goal of liberty in Cuba,’’ said Jorge Mas Santos, current CANF chairman and son of Mas Canosa, who died in 1997. ``It reflects on the vision of the founders, who left us their vision to make sure that every Cuban on the island knows that they are not alone.’‘
Highlighting the foundation’s current focus on providing financial and other support to dissidents still living in Cuba, Mas and his mother Irma Mas Santos announced a $1 million donation to the foundation to mark the quarter century milestone.
But there are those who say the anniversary rings hollow.
‘‘That organization does not have the vitality it once had, and it doesn’t do half of what it once did,’’ said former CANF spokeswoman Ninoska P�rez Castell�n, now an outspoken critic. `It’s really sad.’‘
P�rez and a prominent group of dissenters left the organization to found the Cuban Liberty Council in 2001 because of disagreements over Mas Santos’ leadership.
The rift between the members of CANF and the council has widened as Mas has taken more moderate stances on issues. For instance, CANF officials have been open to meeting with lower-level Cuban government officials—a view the council vehemently opposed.
CANF also has reached out to Democrats in Congress at a time that the White House has looked to the Liberty Council and other more conservative groups for political advice on Cuba.
Florida International University international relations professor Antonio Jorge said the disagreements are indicative of a larger phenomenon.
‘‘The division in the groups is a reflection of the divisions in the Cuban community,’’ said Jorge, who has made efforts in the past to create a common platform among the different exile groups.
``We have a shared vision of the ultimate outcome, which is the freedom for Cuba, but it hasn’t been possible to agree on a common strategy.’‘
Miami Herald staff writer Oscar Corral contributed to this report.