A statement issued by Cuban-American powerbroker Jorge Mas Canosa after a meeting earlier this week with Democrat Bill Clinton has caused a furor among Republicans here while fueling speculation that defectors from what was once considered the most solid of Republican voting blocs could help give Florida's 25 electoral votes to the Democrats for the first time since 1976.
Mas, chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation, went to Tampa on Tuesday to thank Clinton for his support of the anti-Castro Cuban Democracy Act. In a statement signed by Mas and three other CANF directors, Mas went on to say: "Any fears that the Cuban-American community may have had about a Clinton Administration with regard to Castro's Cuba have dissipated today."
Many interpreted Mas' remarks as all but blessing Cuban-Americans who wanted to vote for Clinton. Republican stalwarts expressed surprise and dismay over what some characterized as a betrayal.
"I have a serious problem with (the statement)," said Alberto Cardenas, co-chairman of the Bush-Quayle campaign in Dade County and a co-founder of CANF. "Advising the Cuban-American voter that Clinton is an acceptable choice is without merit, and at best premature, and doesn't speak well for 12 years of Republican support. I told that to Mr. Mas."
Democrats downplayed Mas' influence, insisting a slight shift was under way long before the meeting.
"Cuban-American voters could make the difference, could be that swing vote," said Grace Prieto, a coordinator with the Clinton-Gore campaign in Dade County. "Dukakis got about 7% of the Cuban-American vote in 1988. I am sure that this time the Democrats will get 25% to 30%."
Statewide, the race between the Arkansas governor and President Bush is rated pretty much a tossup, and Cuban-American voters make up only 4% of the Florida total.
Still, according to a poll released Tuesday by Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research, what was once an overwhelming majority for Bush among Cuban-Americans has begun to erode, from 73% to 55%. Meanwhile, Clinton's support among the same group rose from 19% to 36%.
Those poll results were released about the same time that Mas was meeting privately with Clinton in Tampa, and do not reflect the subsequent political fallout from his statement.
Mas, along with several CANF directors, met with Clinton after the Democratic candidate addressed 18,000 people at a rally. Also present at the meeting were Rep. Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.) and Maria Arias, Clinton's Cuban-born sister-in-law.
Mas' overture to Clinton was widely seen as a political hedge by an ambitious man who has made no secret of his intention to be a leading player--perhaps even president--in a post-Castro Cuba.
But his conciliatory statement caused such an uproar among so many Cubans here that Mas went on a Spanish-language radio station Thursday to affirm his support for Bush. "My affiliation is Republican, my vote is for President Bush, but my work for Cuba is much more important than my partisan preferences," he said during an interview over radio station WQBA.
Mas' political maneuvering "is the topic in the Cuban community," said Los Angeles-based political pollster Sergio Bendixen, working here for the Univision television network. "Many people feel it was treason for (Mas) to suggest it might to OK to vote for Democrats, perceived for many years as next to Communists. Others accept that Mas' one objective is the liberty of Cuba, and see it as a genius move."
Prieto said she has been busy assuring Cuban-American Democrats that the controversial Mas "will not control the Clinton Administration." Mas' goal, added Prieto, "is to persist as leader if Bill Clinton wins, and keep power and control."
Arias, a Miami attorney married to Hugh Rodham, Hillary Clinton's brother, said: "We welcome any statements from Mas or anyone else who says they believe in Bill Clinton. My reading is that he does have impact. I don't think (his statement) can hurt."
Tomas Garcia Fuste, news director of WQBA, said he believes that Bush's son, Jeb, a Miami businessman, is the difference. "He is a good friend here. Cuban-Americans are Republicans, no matter what happens."
In its report on the controversy, the Miami Herald mentioned rumors that before traveling to Tampa to meet with Clinton, Mas was confronted at his home by an angry Jeb Bush, who demanded that he not go. In the same account, Jeb Bush denied that any confrontation took place.