They came from all over Chicago to hear the patriot Jorge Mas Canosa. It was a rare opportunity, everyone agreed, to see the man who founded the Cuban-American National Foundation and had a vital hand in establishing Radio Marti, the Radio Free Europe counterpart aimed at Fidel Castro's Cuba.
Luis Tigera, the owner of the Cuban Boys, a book and magazine distributorship in Pilsen, was beaming. He had succeeded in bringing Mas Canosa to Chicago--a feat attempted without success by almost every other Cuban political group in town--and he had also packed the vast dining room of the Northwest Builders building.
"I am not going to give a speech," Mas Canosa said at the beginning of his hour-long discourse. He was dapper in a double-breasted suit, a handsome man in his mid-40s. "No, I am not going to do that."
Gathered before him were almost 200 Cubans and other Latin Americans, mostly businessmen and their wives. But Northwest Builders, on the far northwest side, with its cozy bungalows and fixed ethnicity, seemed a long shot for a Latino political dinner. "We thought about doing it downtown or in Logan Square," one of the organizers said. "But, you know, most of these people are coming in from the suburbs and it was easier for them to come here."
The organizers, familiar with the Cuban propensity to speak for hours and hours, had also decided to do, something else to make it easy: they offered only one speaker for the evening, Mas Canosa himself.
"That's unprecedented for a Cuban event, isn't it?" joked Ezequiel Banda Sifuentes, the editorial voice of WOJO FM, one of the city's leading Spanish-language radio stations. Sifuentes, a Mexican, was one of a dozen or so non-Cubans to show.
Also in attendance was Elio Montenegro Jr., the Cuban Hispanic-affairs liaison in the governor's office. The baby-faced Montenegro, tall, bespectacled, and slightly awkward, was accompanied by his blond American wife, who smiled painfully during most of the evening.
"Hey, Elio, what happened with your campaign?" somebody asked.
Montenegro, who at a public appearance for the governor once confused a Mexican national holiday with the Mexican new year (there is no such thing), had announced a Republican candidacy for recorder of deeds but later dropped it. At his only press conference, he'd claimed nearly unanimous Latino support and heavily implied he had Jim Thompson's backing.
"Too many Democrats jumped over," Montenegro said about not making it onto the Republican slate--Bernard Stone got the nod. Awkwardly tugging at his tie, Montenegro laughed nervously. His wife's frozen smile held.
"He was running for office?" a matron whispered to her daughter. "But he has no personality . . . !"
Alas Canosa, on the other hand, was relying heavily on his charisma. "I'm not here to appeal to you emotionally," he said in a strong baritone that carried throughout the hall. "I'm here to make a rational, reasonable argument."
Yet his appeal was clearly tailored to the viscera. In a classic, if not ironic, Fidel Castro imitation, Mas Canosa's voice boomed and his hands clutched the sides of the podium. Occasionally, one arm flailed above his head or took sharp, symbolic pokes at a point. Frequently, his pauses were long and dramatic, allowing him to survey the room.
"We have to stop talking about a thesis of return [to Cuba]," he demanded. "We have to start talking about a thesis of liberation." He yanked a white handkerchief from his breast pocket and patted at his shiny brow.
Before Mas Canosa's presentation, during the meal of American-style roast beef, mashed potatoes, and vegetables, the audience was entertained by videotapes on a giant screen. Dressed in a white suit, a balding local crooner serenaded the crowd. He was followed by "Volvere a Ti," a "We Are the World" clone done by a roomful of Cuban exile artists. The last video performance was by Governor Jim Thompson, who praised the Cuban community and the foundation, and alluded to, while clearly not endorsing, Elio Montenegro's bid for recorder of deeds, which by now was defunct. Montenegro apologized to those around him for the governor's anachronistic message.
Then Mas Canosa stood up and thundered. "Fidel Castro couldn't have envisioned what would happen to his public relations strategy after 25 years of exile," he said. He boasted that the Cuban-American National Foundation had kept Castro's government from making cultural presentations in Washington. "He couldn't imagine what would happen when a group of exile millionaires got together."
Mas Canosa yakked on and on: identifying the Black Congressional Caucus as Castro's last American political stronghold (he claimed the foundation "got a black guy to run against the caucus leader--well, we didnt get him, we influenced him"); denouncing recent Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias as a hypocrite for publicly debasing the contras while privately assuring Reagan (and presumably Mas Canosa) that the contras were vital for democracy in Central America; explaining how in America one doesn't buy politicos but influences them with $10,000 campaign contributions ("even Paul Simon").
By the time his nonspeech was over, Mas Canosa, had promised that Jonas Savimbi, the South African-backed anti-Communist, would prevail in Angola, and that the contras would be in Managua in 18 months.
For all his power, however, Mas Canosa couldn't seem to get the crowd's undivided attention. There was constant talking and then quick waves of whispers asking people to be quiet. The room would lower its volume and then slip back into table conversations. Even would-be candidate Montenegro engaged in lively discourse at his ringside table. His wife, on the other hand, got up at one point and never came back.
There was someone else who disappeared--a swarthy man in an ill-fitting brown suit. Mas Canosa had been in the middle of an anecdote ("And then I turned to the secretary of state, and I said, 'George. . .'") when the man, drunk and angry, decided Mas Canosa was fall of crap.
"What's he saying that's so different?" slurred the man, getting louder and louder as the Cubans around his table became furious. "What? Isn't this America? Can't a man have a different opinion than this guy?"
Watching from the sidelines, and openly bemused, were restaurateur Elias Sanchez, owner of the popular Logan Square eatery Tania's, and Mario Moya, a Bolivian broadcaster and social gadfly.
"Guy got drunk, that's all," said the diminutive Moya, his long, almost handlebar mustache hovering above a broad grin.
A group of men grabbed the dissident under the arms and dragged him out of the dining room. In the foyer, the man loosened their grip and demanded to be allowed to walk out on his own. "Some democracy!" he spat.
"There's always one in every crowd," said Elias Sanchez, shaking his head. as he watched the incident with a kind of fascination.
For Luis Tigera, however, there was nothing funny at all about this moment. The outburst had obviously hurt him. He rushed outside in time to see the drunken man step onto the sidewalk. "No hard feelings, Tigera," the man said.
But Tigera, who looks like a hangdog and is known for his sweet, even disposition, was furious. "I'm not going to forget this," Tigera said.
"Forget it, Luis, forget it," a couple of bystanders recommended.
"You remember my face," Tigera warned the man and stepped back inside.
When Mas Canosa finished, Luis Tigera and the others clapped. But no one seemed to notice that Mas Canosa had said almost nothing politically concrete about Cuba. Even on some old issues, like the Mariel refugees deemed "excludable" and indefinitely incarcerated in Atlanta, Mas Canosa maintained silence.
"Tacky, tacky," said an Argentine entrepreneur as he spotted the Cuban-American National Foundation's fund-raising envelopes at each table setting. "He talks like somebody who wants a democracy but he brags about his oligarchy." Mas Canosa had revealed that the foundation thrived on a board of directors whose members are required red to pay $10,000 in annual dues, and a list of trustees composed of $5,000 donors.
Afterward, Mas Canosa invited questions from the audience. At first, no one raised a hand. Then, slowly, they went up, one by one. From the questions, it was obvious few had been paying attention. Mas Canosa twitched as he repeated himself, over and over. Soon the questions became an avalanche, everyone trying to outdo everyone else.
At the end of it all, a crush of people rushed the stage, trailed by camera flashes. It was clear that standing next to Mas Canosa was a lot more important than hearing what he had to say.
The first one to demand a picture was Guillermo Bauta, the Cuban editor of the Pilsen newsweekly El Norte. Bauta fawned on Mas Canosa. as he issued instructions to the cameraman, a short brown man who genuflected with every order. Bauta grabbed Mas Canosa, pulling him into an embrace. Mas Canosa, for the first time all evening, seemed disgusted. A buxom blond was next in the picture line. Mas Canosa strained to look over the crowd. "Where's Luis?" he asked.
Down on the floor, amid well-dressed women openly stuffing little Cuban and American flags from the dinner tables into their handbags, Luis Tigera was collecting envelopes for the Cuban-American National Foundation and sincerely thanking everyone for coming.