Cubans And Blacks Riled Over Clinton Appointment Selecting A Black Cuban American As An Assistant At State Looked Like A Good Choice. It Wasn't.

Posted: February 06, 1993

When Bill Clinton settled on Mario Baeza as his new assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, administration officials thought it was a brilliant choice.

Here was a gifted lawyer specializing in international business who had built contacts with Latin American leaders. Just as important, he is a black Cuban American. African Americans would be happy, Hispanics in general would be happy, and Cubans in particular might be induced to take a step away from the Republicans toward the Democrats.

It was a huge miscalculation. When word leaked out that Baeza was going to named, Cuban-Americans lobbied hard and derailed the nomination. Members of the black Congressional Caucus counterattacked, charging racism. It got ugly. It is still ugly.

Cuban opposition to Baeza centers on his 1992 trip to Havana with a group of European investors. Dealings with Fidel Castro are anathema to the vast majority of Cuban-Americans, who believe that isolating the dictator is not only a sound political strategy, but a moral imperative.

Was it fair for Cubans to judge Baeza harshly because of one trip?

Let me put it this way: What would have happened if, at the height of the anti-apartheid divestiture movement, Ronald Reagan had handed over African policy to someone who had traveled to South Africa with potential investors?

The African American community would have been outraged, and rightly so, that U.S. policy toward South Africa was going to be led by someone whose opposition to apartheid (let's say the nominee denounced it, in the same way Baeza eventually denounced Castro) was less important than the desire to reap a few million dollars from the backs of blacks who were denied the most basic rights human beings ought to have. As it turns out, Cuban outrage is not permissible.

Perhaps the most bitter attack came from Rep. Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.), who issued a statement saying that racism of white Cubans against the black Baeza was the real motivation.

It's a ridiculous accusation. Cuban suspicions of Baeza's policy ideas would have been raised instantly upon knowing of his travels, even before anyone knew he was black. I have absolutely no doubt that the Cuban community would have been thrilled and proud had a hardline anti-Castro black Cuban been named.

In fact, says Rep. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), a Cuban-American who led the anti-Baeza charge, "One of the best people we could have would be someone who shares our views and happens to be a black Cuban-American. That would build bridges not only with blacks in the United States, but with blacks in Cuba."

Rangel - as well as various pundits - concentrated the savage attack on the Cuban American National Foundation. It became a game of reductionism: Reduce the entire Cuban-American community to the Cuban American National Foundation, and reduce the foundation to a bunch of right-wing fanatics.

The truth is that opposition to Baeza is much, much broader than just the foundation. Most Cuban-Americans, whether or not they approve of the foundation's sometime heavy-handed tactics, support a hard line against Castro that excludes the kind of investment Baeza apparently explored for his law firm. So why the obsession with the foundation? Why the spurious charge of racism?

Rangel and his friends realize that attacking all Cubans is not a good strategy. An easier target is the foundation (it's "those right-wing Cubans" again), and there is good reason for creating an easier target.

Baeza supporters now acknowledge off the record that the nomination, which was never officially made in the first place, appears dead. But this goes beyond Baeza: One source close to the Congressional Black Caucus says this is only the beginning of a lamentable struggle between blacks and Cubans for control of American policy toward Cuba. "The Cubans won this battle, but will not win the war," the source said.

I don't know who will win this "war." But I fear it is being fought to deprive Cuban-Americans of a voice when the United States makes policy that affects the island of their birth.

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