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20 Leaders Resign from Cuban Lobbying Group - 2001-08-09

For decades, Miami's large Cuban exile community has sought to present a unified front in pursuing an end to communist rule in Cuba. But the exiles' most-powerful lobbying group, the Cuban American National Foundation, today finds itself in a state of disarray after a series of high-profile resignations.

Tuesday, 20 high-ranking members of the Cuban American National Foundation held a news conference in Miami to announce their departure. One by one, they denounced the organization's leadership under chairman Jorge Mas Santos.

Defector Rodolfo Pardo, complained that critical decisions have been made and longstanding policies altered without consultation. Mr. Pardo says a few people make decisions in unknown locations and inform the rest of the leadership without getting anyone's approval.

Mr. Pardo's words were echoed by many others who resigned from the CANF, or "the Foundation" as it is commonly known in Miami. Luis Zuniga, whose duties included lobbying U.N. officials on Cuba-related matters, said the organization has strayed from its traditional role as a backbone of opposition to Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Mr. Zuniga says statements are being made that are completely divorced from the objectives and the historic goals of the Foundation.

Tuesday's mass-resignations followed that of another high-profile member - local radio talk show host and one-time Foundation spokesperson Ninoska Perez. Ms. Perez has long-championed a hard-line approach to Cuba, lambasting any contact, cultural or otherwise, between the United States and the island nation. Last week, she accused the CANF of unilaterally changing its policies to the detriment of the cause of freedom in Cuba, and resigned.

In recent weeks, much has been made of the Foundation's endorsement of Miami as a venue for the Latin Grammy music awards. The decision was controversial because the event will feature Cuban artists who work within the island nation's communist system.

Cuban American National Foundation chairman Jorge Mas Santos says he regrets the departure of his colleagues, but makes no apologies for steering the organization on what is widely regarded as a more moderate path. He said, "I am taking these steps because we believe in them, because we think it is the right thing for this community, for today and for the future. And if the steps we take are unpopular, so be it. I think time will judge this institution as it always has, that it has taken bold steps and the right steps to represent the best interests of the Cuban people."

Florida International University political scientist and Cuba-watcher Dario Moreno says there are two factors that explain the Foundation's recent tilt toward the center. Professor Moreno said, "One is to improve the image of Cuban-Americans after a disastrous public relations period in the wake of the Elian Gonzalez saga. To put a more moderate face on the foundation, to make the foundation look less extreme to the broader American public."

The other factor, according to professor Moreno, is a genuine rethinking of how the CANF can best achieve its stated goal of bringing Fidel Castro's rule to an end. He says change can be tumultuous for any organization - but that some good may come of it. "You are seeing the Foundation moving toward the center," he said, "slowly changing its policies on items like travel to Cuba. And what you see is some of the more right-wing, hard line members who do not want to see the Foundation change, leaving the Foundation in frustration. I think it is a very healthy political struggle about the future political direction and the position of the Cuban-American community towards U.S. relations with Cuba."

CANF chairman Jorge Mas Santos insists the organization is, in his words, "stronger than ever". He says the foundation wields more influence in Washington and maintains greater contact with dissidents in Cuba than at any point in its history. His assertions are scoffed at by those who have resigned.

To date, no one leaving the organization has indicated any desire to form a rival Cuban-exile lobbying group. Observers say the Cuban American National Foundation will likely survive this week's departures. But they add the organization's viability will be sorely challenged if the exodus continues.