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Mas o Menos

May 10, 2012

CBS’s infomercial for grossly overpaid corporate CEOs, Undercover Boss, tomorrow will feature Miami’s Jose Mas Canosa, CEO of MasTec, which  according to the company’s website,  does ”engineering and construction for electrical transmission, oil and natural gas pipelines, renewable energy and wireless networks.”

Of course, I haven’t seen the show yet since it doesn’t air until May 11, but if previous episodes are any guide, it will show a benevolent boss incompetently trying to do the jobs of his poorly-paid peon employees and discovering that they have problems trying to make ends meet.  At the end of the show, he will reveal himself as Lady Bountiful and bestow some largesse on a few tearfully grateful subjects, demonstrating that He Has a Heart and All is Right with the World.

As is often the case, the back story here is a lot more interesting.

If you Google Jose Mas Canosa, you won’t find much except references to Undercover Boss.  What you will find is hundreds of links to stories about his late father, Jorge Mas Canosa, the founder of the Cuban American National Foundation, which basically ran US policy on Cuba as well as much of South Florida politics during the Reagan and Bush I years.  As local CBS Miami puts it:  “Cuban immigrant Jorge Mas Canosa was known for his brave opposition against Fidel Castro and his leadership in the Miami community in the 1980s.”  For a less rosy picture of this larger-than-life figure, read this obituary by Cuba scholar Saul Landau. Or this 1995 profile by Larry Rohter of the New York Times.

It’s a real South Florida story and, well, a bit more complicated.  The senior Mas Canosa was inarguably a brilliant organizer and strategist.  The official version of his story is a real Horatio Alger immigrant-makes-good tale, but at least according to some other versions, he was helped along by connections with US-government intelligence which gave covert assistance to him and other violence-oriented Cuban exiles, including hooking him up with the engineering firm Iglesias and Torres, of which he soon became the Miami branch manager.  In 1969 the company name was anglicized to Church and Tower, and Mas Canosa was able to buy it in 1971 for a reported $50,000. The company prospered, allegedly due at least in part to intertwining business and political connections—not an untypical Miami scenario.  After another merger, the company became MasTec in 1994—three years before Jorge Mas Canosa’s death.

Jorge Mas Canosa’s real legacy was CANF, which got off the ground soon after Reagan’s election.  He modeled CANF on—and was tutored by—the Israeli lobby AIPAC, and was spectacularly successful in manipulating congress to support an hostile policy toward the Castro regime, in part by giving contributions to vulnerable congress members whose constituents couldn’t care less about Cuba.  Perhaps his crowning achievement was the passage of the Helms-Burton bill in 1996—named after the odious North Carolina senator Jesse Helms and the goofball Indiana representative Dan Burton.  This act allowed Cuban exiles to file suit in US courts against any foreign company “trafficking” in property nationalized by the Castro regime.  Among other achievements, CANF was also instrumental in getting to US government to sponsor Radio Marti (and later TV Marti) under the aegis of the Voice of America.

Mas Canosa never hid his associations with Cuban exiles who engaged in violent acts against Castro’s Cuba, but always managed to maintain plausible deniability.  (For a fascinating account of this aspect, see the New York Times story here.)    He was an implacable foe of anyone in the Miami community who questioned his actions or authority, in 1986 challenging Miami City Commissioner Joe Carollo to a duel for saying that he had used his contacts to push the city into awarding him a large contract.

He at least contributed to the creation of an atmosphere of violence in Miami where between 1987 and 1990, some 13 bomb explosions were directed at shippers and travel agents dealing with Cuba or Cuban-Americans who questioned the embargo.  In 1992 he took umbrage at the Miami Herald and launched a vituperative campaign against the newspaper, plastering the city with his “I Don’t Believe ‘The Herald’” stickers.  Perhaps not surprisingly, Herald executives received death threats and the paper’s vending machines were vandalized. [Update:  This 1992 article from the St. Petersburg Times captures the tensions of the  moment.]   The New York Times thought it was alarming enough to print an editorial decrying the climate of intimidation in Miami.

Of course, all of this makes Jorge Mas Canosa a hero in the eyes of many Cuban Americans, and the supercharged political atmosphere he helped foster lingers on as witnessed by the recent flap over remarks of the Marlins’ manager Ozzie Guillen—if in a somewhat attenuated state.

In the end, Jorge Mas Canosa always considered himself a Cuban, not an American, and in a 1992 interview famously said “I have never assimilated. I never intended to. I am a Cuban first. I live here only as an extension of Cuba.”  After the Soviet Union collapsed and ended its subsidies to Castro, he seemed to see himself as the future president of a post-Castro Cuba and started trying to set up a shadow government in exile.  But Castro outlasted him.

For all I know, the son Jose Mas Canosa may be a fine man and a brilliant and generous executive.  But his father’s story is something to keep in mind if you watch Undercover Boss on Friday.

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