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Cuban-American exiles consider possible change in leadership

For decades, America's Cuban exiles have spoken with practically one voice: that of Jorge Mas Canosa, one of Fidel Castro's most implacable foes.

But a serious illness has silenced the hard-line chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation for months, leaving exiles to wonder who will lead their cause at a time of generational and political change.

"It's going to be very difficult for the foundation to find a figure that will wield as much influence as Jorge Mas Canosa," said Dario Moreno, a professor of political science at Florida International University. "In many senses, the foundation is Jorge Mas Canosa."

Canosa, 58, has added energy and charisma to the struggle for democracy in Cuba.

He got the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 and the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 through Congress, tightening the embargo to keep the economic pressure on Cuba.

The biggest symbol of his power is Radio and TV Marti, which air uncensored news and commentary aimed at Cuba. Canosa has managed to keep it funded with help from Congress even though the TV signal is jammed by Cuba, and the radio signal is often just a crackle.

Canosa has Paget's disease, an affliction of the bones that is not usually fatal. He recently suffered a severe lung infection that required life support. He was released after more than two weeks in the hospital, but sources close to Canosa have said the prognosis is not good.

Many of his partisans have begun thinking the unthinkable: Who will lead the movement after Canosa?

His illness couldn't have come at a worse time.

The exile community is in transition. Among other things, the voice of moderates, such as Eloy Gutierrez-Menoyo, who favor a dialogue with Castro's Cuba and a lifting of the embargo is getting louder.

In addition, several of those in the new generation of Cuban-American leaders weren't even born in Cuba and do not have the same emotional connection to the exiles who fled when Castro took power and confiscated businesses and property.

Leaders who could fill the void after Canosa include:

Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, 35, who wasn't even born when Castro took power in 1959. The Miami-born Penelas is considered Florida's most powerful elected official behind the governor.

U.S. Rep. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. The 43-year-old New York native was elected mayor of Union City, N.J., in 1986 and served in the New Jersey Legislature. He is an adviser to President Clinton on U.S.-Cuba policy.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, 45, R-Miami, who is head of the House International Relations subcommittee for the Western hemisphere.

Pepe Hernandez, 61, president of the Cuban American National Foundation since 1990. The former Marine captain took part in the Bay of Pigs invasion and spent two years in a Cuban jail.

Ramon Saul Sanchez, 43, the Havana-born leader of the hard-line Democracy Movement. He regularly leads flotillas to the edge of Cuban waters, and organizes protests and other anti-Castro activities.

U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, 43. Many think the Havana-born congressman has the potential to become the first Hispanic U.S. senator.

Gutierrez-Menoyo, 62, head of Cambio Cubano (Cuban Change), the leading exile group advocating normalizing relations with Cuba.

All except Gutierrez-Menoyo are considered hard-liners: that is, those who oppose normalizing relations with Castro's Cuba.

In Miami, however, the anti-Castro hard-liners are being increasingly challenged by those favoring open relations with Cuba. Their right to do so was recently defended by singer Gloria Estefan, who favors the hard line on Cuba.

Estefan stood up for a member of an entertainment industry advisory board who was fired for criticizing a ban on entertainers from Cuba. Estefan was attacked by some, but many others in the exile community defended her.