WASHINGTON — LATE last month, five prominent Cuban Americans traveled to Washington to give President Clinton a pat on the back. In a meeting with two senior State Department officials, they praised Mr. Clinton's May 2 announcement that Cubans picked up at sea en route to the US would be returned to Cuba.
Not all Cuban Americans have been so supportive. The switch in a longstanding US policy infuriated most, including the Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF), the powerful Miami-based lobby that has for 15 years virtually dictated US policy towards the island nation.
But, according to notes taken by one participant in the meeting, the foundation and its politically savvy director, Jorge Mas Canosa, now apparently have been cut out of the White House policy loop. That would mark a striking turn of fortune for one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington - a group known for its access to high places in successive Republican and Democratic administrations.
`Jorge Mas Canosa is no longer a welcome guest at the White House," one of the State Department officials said, according to a Cuban American participant in the meeting. "The Cuban-American [National] Foundation is not going to drive US-Cuba policy."
Clinton first signaled his independence from the conservative Cuban-American community when he declined to consult with the Foundation before announcing the May 2 immigration accord with Havana, which also allows 20,000 Cubans detained at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to come to the US. The break now appears to be complete.
"When the US government changes a 36-year-old policy without consulting with the major interest group involved, I think you can say that group has lost influence," says one former US official with long experience in Latin America.
Various sources familiar with CANF say the group retains considerable influence on Capitol Hill, where it has shifted the bulk of its lobbying resources since the May 2 announcement. But as the administration and CANF gear up for battle over pending legislation to tighten US sanctions on Cuba, they say its vaunted influence in Washington may be in permanent decline.
Cuba reality check?
"Reality may be catching up with the Cuba issue," says a congressional source, referring to the changing diplomatic environment of the post-cold-war era. "It means it will not be as easy for the Cuban-American lobby to prevail over the long term, even if it wins this one."
Unlike the pro-Israel lobby, which is backed by large numbers of influential Jews scattered across the country, the Cuban-American lobby draws most of its strength from two regions: south Florida and New Jersey, where most of the country's 1.5 million Cuban-Americans are concentrated.
But CANF has made up for its narrow geographical base with aggressive lobbying and large financial contributions to lawmakers, gaining a reputation for political clout on Capitol Hill and, until now, within the executive branch.
"Mas Canosa knows how to play the game better than most," says another former US official. "He knows whom he can win over with money and whom he is going to have to use tough tactics against" by flooding congressional districts with mail or subsidizing opposition candidates.
US policy toward Cuba has always been heavily influenced by domestic politics in Florida, where opposition to Mr. Castro has historically run high. But with most Floridians now more concerned about an influx of refugees at home than politics in Cuba, Clinton is free to write off most of the Cuban-American community, which traditionally votes Republican.
The foundation has been a staunch opponent of the Castro regime and has used its formidable influence in Washington to ensure that tight sanctions are maintained on Cuba. Any diminution of the lobby's influence would make it easier to begin normalizing relations, a course advocates say could hasten Castro's downfall.
"As long as the administration was listening to Mas Canosa there was little chance of even small steps being taken," says Wayne Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington. "With his influence diminished we could see some limited response to Cuban political and economic initiatives."
Several calls to the CANF headquarters in Miami were not returned.
One key to the influence of the foundation is that, until the end of the cold war, it has largely had the field to itself. There was no significant opposition in or outside Congress to the propositions that Cuba was a threat to US interests, that the nation should be contained, or that Castro should be toppled.
But since the end of the cold war, two things have changed. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the termination of political support and financial subsidies from Moscow, Cuba has ceased to be a national security threat.
Under pressure of economic necessity, meanwhile, Castro has begun to liberalize Cuba's economy, legalizing the US dollar, allowing Cubans to start their own businesses, opening private agricultural markets. An imminent foreign investment law will allow foreign companies to have wholly owned operations in Cuba for the first time since 1959, the year Castro seized power.
All of which has split the community of US Cuba experts down the middle.
New organizations, including those representing US businesses eager to gain a share of the opening Cuban market, now contest the Foundation for influence, aggressively making their case with the White House and Congress.
"Until now, only one point of view has made it to the desks of policymakers," says one private expert on Cuba who asked not to be identified. "Now that's changing."
Where the foundation has focused on Cuban politics, including Castro's dismal human rights record, other groups now stress economic changes they say allow for reciprocal concessions by the US under the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act.
"The lines are more sharply drawn than ever before," adds the expert. "Some people say that as long as Castro is alive and on that island, the US should not embrace Cuba no matter how much it changes.
Others say that if Cuba makes economic and political changes it doesn't matter if Castro is there or not."
Bad news for foundation
Last month's presidential slight has been accompanied by other bad news for the foundation.
Despite intense criticism from CANF, Clinton's immigration agreement has won widespread support in Florida and is even backed by 45 percent of Cuban-Americans in Florida, according to a Miami Herald poll.
Last March, meanwhile, a group of experts commissioned by the Pentagon challenged one of the CANF's chief premises, that tightening US sanctions would administer the coup de grace to Castro's regime.
"With few exceptions, the panelists agreed that Cuba was stable, with little chance of internal rebellion; that its military was extremely unlikely to oppose the leadership of Fidel Castro, and that the majority of the Cuban people and military support the Revolution," their report concluded.
The CANF is also facing a crucial test on the pending "Helms-Burton" legislation which would tighten the embargo on Cuba.
The legislation is expected to pass in the House. But in the Senate only 29 members are for or leaning for the bill, while 46 are against or leaning against and 30 are still undecided, according to the Center for International Policy.
Among other things, the Helms-Burton bill would prohibit sugar imports from countries that import sugar from Cuba and urge the president to seek a UN embargo against Castro.
If the legislation is passed in its original form, it is likely to draw a presidential veto, in part because of its secondary boycott provisions, which several governments, including Canada and European nations, have protested.
Defenders say Helms-Burton will force Castro out of power. Opponents of the bill, including a growing number of large US corporations, say it will only strengthen Castro by making the US the scapegoat for Cuba's continuing economic difficulties.
Several corporate giants including Boise-Cascade, Kraft, and Amstar have argued against provisions of the bill on Capitol Hill.
Of the 100 mostly Fortune-500 companies that are members of the New York-based US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, nearly all "would like to see movement as quickly as possible to normalized commercial, economic, and political relations with Cuba, with or without Fidel Castro," says the council's president John Kavulich.
Some conservative groups have also opposed provisions requiring Cuba to make good on an estimated $30-to-$100 billion in claims by Cuban landowners whose property was seized after Castro came to power 1959.
"This legislation is not a scheme for liberty; it's a scam to pay off wealthy Cuban land barons," says Gary Jarmin, chairman of the US-Cuba Foundation, an association of conservative Republicans who support lifting the Cuba embargo.