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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Miami PACs Power (A Story of an Ethnic Machine) / PACs and the Making of a Machine

Miami  PACs Power (A Story of an Ethnic Machine)

To understand Latin Miami, you have to understand that many Latin Americans, especially those from the Hispanic circum-Caribbean, have a special affinity towards and keen awareness of politics and that was transferred to Latinos in the U.S. Among some in the younger generation (and those who are more recent arrivals) is arguably more subdued but still vastly different from other American counterparts.

Some look at the political violence in Miami in the 1970’s and 80’s and corruption and voter fraud of the 90’s with astonishment. This is mirrored perhaps only in the only in Puerto Rico's political violence, voter fraud and corruption in recent years. By the same token there is also full participation in the voting process.  The voting rate among eligible Latinos in Dade County are consistently are higher than any group in the nation. And it is worth noting that if Puerto Rico were a state, it would consistently be ranked first in voter registration and turn out.

The oft cited image of Latino men in Miami sitting for hours in heated debate over a cafecito and argue about politics and baseball is not a myth. It would be hard to tell which is actually the “national” sport though. This is not a spectator sport however. This culture of politics is rooted in Latin American societies where politics are understood to have direct effect on personal economic opportunity and even basic survival. Understanding and participation of the mechanics of politics differs greatly from average American politicization, where politics tend to be more impersonal and voting during "major" elections is considered to be sufficiently engaged.

Voting alone however is not an explanation of Miami's Latino community, and particularly the Cuban community's political clout. Half of the Miami (Dade County) Latino population is not Cuban. Puerto Ricans are the second largest group of Hispanics according to the Census, followed by Colombians, and Nicaraguans. With the exception of Puerto Ricans, most non-Cuban Latinos cannot vote. And a third of Cuban Americans cannot vote legally as they have chosen to not be naturalized.  The potential voting population of either Anglos and African Americans is comparable to Cuban Americans. There are reports from the likes of pollster / activist Sergio Bendixen, who actually claims that there are nearly 100,000 more Cuban Americans voters as there are Cuban American adults, and that Anglos and African Americans in Miami-Dade simply do not vote at all. For those of us who are more engaged in reality, we have to look elsewhere for the roots of Cuban American political influence in Miami-Dade's political scene.

No understanding can occur without some familiarity with the late Jorge Mas Canosa, the brilliant godfather of Latin Miami politics.  He is too interesting of a character to fully describe but in this context it is important to understand that he was a committed Cuban nationalist, who saw Cubans in exile by extension, as part of the Cuban nation. Mas Canosa was also pragmatic. In the Bay of Pigs Invasion Mas Canosa turned back rather than to land with his squadron, determining early on that it was doomed to failure.

He understood that Americans would not support a prolonged military operation involving large amount of American troops so close to our border with the possibility of it growing into a larger conflict. There would have to be another way to assure Cuban American's future, here in America or on the island and it would be long battle.

When millions of dollars a month were pouring in from the government to any three Cuban exiles that called themselves a “Cuban Resistance Group”, he saw that government funding and support needed to be carefully utilized. Mas Canosa cultivated high level U.S. Government connections and training in intelligence and sabotage to better use than making a quick buck.  He organized the small Batistiano element in exile (secret police, military, organized crime) into something that would recreate pre-revolutionary Cuba. For every dummy organization and business sponsored by the government he saw the possibility of a new functional business. He was linked with everyone from Santo Trafficante (the mobster) to the cocaine cowboys. (Indeed, it has been shown where a number of Mas Canosa's associates used their training and cover to traffic drugs). Mas Canosa used his political connections to gain lucrative contracts, rising from a milk man to the owner of a Fortune 1000 company, MASTEC.

It was the political action committee or PAC, Cuban American National Foundation that was the key to his power.  Jorge Mas Canosa often traveled in a three car motorcade with Cuban flags on the corners of each car. If he was the virtual president of Latin Miami, to many Anglos he virtually had horns and a tail.

This simple case of creating the Cuban American National Foundation or CANF profoundly changed the nature of Cuban American politics. Mas Canosa became fascinated with AIPAC (the America-Israel Political Action Committee) and used it as a model. It was not a question of simply affecting policy towards Cuba. Cuban Americans could be beneficiaries of political organizing ostensibly aimed at changing conditions in Cuba. He went so far as to create a Cuban Anti-Defamation League. For him creating this organizational web was the vehicle to bring Cuban Americans to power in Miami. At the height of his influence, he insisted that no one with policy authority over Cuban American Miami, Cuban or not, should win an election or appointment that he did not support.

In the half decade since his death Cuban American politics are still a focal point of America's national interest and local power consolidated (particularly following Hurricane Andrew through and again during the real estate boom coinciding with the George W. Bush era.)  But post Mas Canosa Cuban American power nationally has been either in flux or decline, depending on which observer you ask. The CANF splintered and none of the factions are as influential today as the original organization once was. Cuban politicians have flourished but none have the independence and the the impunity that was provided to representatives of the Cuban American power elite coalesced around the old CANF.

With the implosion of the CANF following the death of Jorge Mas Canosa, there is a vacuum. Miami is widely seen as up for grabs. Jeb and George Bush while splitting with the CANF, have maintained cordial relations with the less effective Cuban Liberty Council.

Three CANF-like organizations are being put together and it is expected that several more will be formed by new-comers eager to fill the vacuum. Individual power brokers now hold sway, like Al Cardenas, Sergio Pino, and the Fanjul family, or institutionally, with the Latin Builders Association.

The are fueled by the economic catalysts and constituency rallying points-  immigration, foreign policy, regional development, real estate development, religion, language and education, unions and public spending. Some groups are patching together issues.

It may be more helpful to understand the nature of a successful PAC (specifically, I am referring to “super-PAC's”, which include elements beyond a PAC that are meant to influence and wield power.)  PAC's have been used to allow a disproportionate influence on policy. It may be that the only way to counter balance this is by exposing the workings of PAC's so that people can guard against their influence or replicate them so that they are no longer a tool of influence limited to a few.

PACs and the Making of a Machine

For the uninitiated, it is helpful to understand that a PAC gives money and support through policy / issue, party and candidate support. It is technically a non profit organization (but you will see how it can be very profitable). It starts with a board of directors and a membership that pays dues and often gives substantial donations. Often these directors give tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual dues to the organization.

For a PAC to be truly influential you will need to find some way to compensate the people involved in the organization. For instance if you have a real estate development PAC, you will be using your funds to get preferential zoning or wage laws, or deliver contracts.

So what policy are you advocating? The more contentious the policy, the better. Voters turn out for contentious issues. So what if a mayor cannot do anything about immigration, visitation policy to Cuba, the war in Iraq. People will still turn out if these issues are raised in places where people care about them. Just avoid policy that is inimical to other national, well entrenched interests.

You do not have to have an issue where you really want policy changed. Advocacy for an issue can be an end to itself. Often achieving one’s ultimate goal on a contentious issue can mean the loss of power over other issues.

Be passionate, be unwavering and have clarity of purpose. You have to hammer home your message and demand discipline. This is key because it is important that you stifle debate, presenting your view as the right view, the only reasonable view. After all, you are doing advocacy, not running a debate club. At the same time it is important to tailor the way you express your message. What would seem like a reasonably stated argument to your core may seem to be a crazy rant to the world at large.

You also have to have contact with lobbyists who have clout. Lobbyists are tricky and untrustworthy so be careful. After time, you will be able to generate lobbyists from some of the same people you get elected. Some of the best lobbyists are former politicians, their relatives and aides.

Having some people that will do dirty work will also help. Some of you are aware of astroturfing, and rent-a-riot operatives. There are also researchers and rumor mongerers who can give any opposing policy supporters or rival politicians a black eye. If a group opposes abortion, for instance, and has contacts with people that incite others to picket and possibly to hurl fire bombs at a clinic, while calling a particular candidate a murderer, you are stronger for it. Just keep your distance from these flamethrowers, literally and figuratively.

Marketing, marketing, marketing. I am talking about advertising, media contacts (to plant stories with press types that are sympathetic or just plain mercenary), media buyers, mailing lists, phone banks, focus groups and demographers. That media buying can be used to influence coverage.

Use party machinery. Money given to parties goes much further than money used independently. The PAC has to coordinate action with party committees on every level from the neighborhood political club houses to local, state and federal party committees. Even better, if you can affect international policy through funneling money to international elections, do it. (If your policy concerns are international in scope, many nations, especially in the Third World, are even easier to penetrate politically.) You may have to start locally, but partnering with influential people in party machinery outside of your immediate community can insulate you from local power competitors.

Look beyond your core group and state that what you are doing serves America. Even if you are trying to destroy the environment in your zeal to strip mine a wildlife preserve, it is not bad to have at least a branch of your organization be called something like “Freedom and Democracy for the American Voter”. At the same time you have to have a single coherent message, moderated of course, for external audiences.

Create a legal education and defense fund. (Don't use the actual term "legal education and defense fund" as it is passe.) This will allow you to work out some more complex issues such as legislation and districting. It will also allow you to build your own bench of lawyers, through supporting their education and entry into the legal field.

You will need non profit organizations. Some of these can be used to get grants from the government and thus hire people who assisted your organization’s efforts. You will be able to apply for government grants to increase voter participation (focusing, of course in areas that you have influence.) Non profits also help in public relations. Many of these non profits can serve to address issues of concern for your constituency, while others can work to publicly address the “plight” or harm done to your constituency. In this way, you achieve advocacy without being hindered by some of the restrictions that cover PAC’s.

Educate everyone you can imagine, using your PAC and your non-profits. I am talking about police officers, school teachers, museum curators, text book writers, bloggers, college professors, etc. Much of this can be funded through various levels of government if you package it right. Opposing the Cuban regime for instance, can be funded through the Endowment for Democracy or the abortion issue could fall on either side of government supported health education funding. If you do a good job you will have people that are lining up to support your movement because they want government posts and funding (which the legislators you support will be happy to provide). These people in turn won’t be in any hurry to indict you when you go over the line, nor will they scream in outrage at your mistakes of excess. This is why it is important to make friends with those in investigations, courts and general law enforcement.

Create your own bench of candidates. Build your PAC and they will come. They will happily serve as foot soldiers with the eventual goal of obtaining support. Even if you do not have much money to offer, you have the organization in place that any budding politico would value. The best way to have a group of candidates that you can trust is to work with them early on. Many people forget that by controlling a group of local elected officials they can have leverage over a wide array of issues that affect government spending and policy. Thus the NRA, while a fine organization, has many friends from people that could care less about guns.

Get yourself media outlets. A radio station, website and a broadsheet can galvanize public opinion and react to issues of the day. It will negate unflattering coverage and competing ideas by creating a cocoon of information. In your world everyone supports you but evil, unfair or unreasonable people. The mode of “us against them” is important because it keeps people mobilized. Not only do media outlets pay for themselves (through advertising) but it creates the opportunities for new political partnerships.

Look for allies to leverage funds. If “what you are for” can make money for you it is also making or potentially can make money for someone else. Branch out to the business community, civic associations, unions, professional organizations, non profits, etc. Local economies and politics always feature the rentier class and property developers, the construction industry as well as unions and a range of businesses that want public contracts or preferential treatment, and individuals want employment.

Go forth and multiply. If possible, create your own version of existing organizations. Ostensibly religious, “values” and ethnic based organizations often use this tactic. When you have these bodies to work with, you have partners whenever there is an opportunity for money to be made. Moreover they will keep you abreast of what is going on with currents and developments in their particular area.

Eventually you will be the insiders. Now you will just have to watch out for the next group of aspirants that are trying to do what you did. They will be guilty of excesses, law breaking or will at least have some bad apples. Better have a few people who investigate, intimidate, and pontificate to make sure that they do not get too far, too fast.

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