WORDS truly have consequences. My words in a Christian Science Monitor opinion essay (March 21, 1995) cost me my job and exposed the extraordinary influence that Cuban-American extremists have on the Republican Party's Cuban policy.
In September, on the recommendation of former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams and others, I was offered a contract to coordinate the Cuba Transition Resources Project of the International Republican Institute (IRI). Lorne Craner, IRI president, proclaimed me the ''ideal candidate'' for the position, considering my background as a senior official with the Reagan and Bush administrations and my publications on Cuba and Latin American policy.
I began work at the IRI on Monday, Sept. 11. A board meeting of the IRI's Cuban Transition Committee was scheduled for the following Wednesday, to be preceded by a working luncheon with committee chairman Jeb Bush.
On Wednesday morning, Mr. Craner called me into his office and said that several Cuba Transition Committee members had threatened to resign if I was retained as coordinator of the group. Stating that ''he couldn't afford to lose them,'' Craner said he must invoke the termination clause in my contract. I was bewildered and angered. I subsequently learned that members associated with the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) in Miami had approached Mr. Bush to convey their opposition to me. When I suggested that I speak with Bush personally to try to clear up the matter, Craner responded that ''it wouldn't make any difference.''
When I asked Craner what objections the Cuban Americans had to me, he said they were infuriated by my Christian Science Monitor article, which called current US policy toward Cuba ''as much an anachronism as the failed attempt of Castro to create a workers' paradise'' and suggested taking ''pragmatic steps leading to talks with the Castro government.'' These steps included letting the Organization of American States mediate Cuba's transition to democracy and gradually dismantling the trade embargo as a means of testing Castro's willingness to undertake political and economic reforms. Craner held this heretical publication in his hands as he spoke and admitted that he personally found nothing offensive about it. However, he was not free to resist the CANF's injunctions.
As I was leaving, Craner warned that I should stay away from Cuban policy if I wished to continue my involvement with Republican politics. To their credit, other Republican Latin American specialists supported me, making telephone calls to the IRI Cuba Transition Committee members in an attempt to reverse this decision. All to no avail. The inference was that if you are not 100 percent in lock step with the CANF, you are their enemy, and they have the power to make or break political careers.
Washington veterans know that politics is a dirty business and that what happened to me is commonplace. Still, I am infuriated by two issues that deserve airing: first, the dominance and manipulation of the Republican Party's Cuba policy by extremist exiles; and second, the fact that the IRI is a nonprofit organization funded by US taxpayers (through the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID), whose charter says its programs ''are nonpartisan but clearly adhere to fundamental Republican principles, such as individual freedom.'' So much for individual freedom of expression here. It makes me wonder how much ''freedom'' would be allowed in a ''democratic Cuba'' if the CANF moguls ever take power there.
While the CANF's grip on the Republican Party is manifest, its reach extends into the Clinton administration as well. The US government seems unable to exercise an independent Cuban policy because of the influence of this small group of Cuban emigres. CANF chairman Jorge Mas Canosa has reportedly boasted that he frequently rewrites White House briefings on Cuba, and the foundation successfully blocked the nomination of the respected Cuban-American lawyer Mario Baeza to be assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs because he was ''insufficiently anti-Castro.'' Numerous polls show that the CANF's confrontational approach does not reflect the views of most Cuban-Americans: A recent survey by The Economist found that 80 percent of Cuban-Americans in Dade County, Fla., favor ''negotiations with the Cuban government to facilitate peaceful change.''
It is ironic that the manipulators of our Cuban policy mirror the Castro regime's worst traits - suppression of free speech, punishment for political dissidents, disregard for individual rights, and dominance of politics by a privileged minority. The United States will be unable to conceive a rational approach toward Cuba until the anachronistic stranglehold of the CANF is broken.