As the State Department’s point man on Cuba policy, Hays, now a lobbyist at Tew Cardenas, was a staunch opponent of liberalizing trade with Cuban leader Fidel Castro or changing U.S. immigration policy, which granted asylum to Cubans automatically. But in the mid-1990s, thousands of Cubans had sailed for Florida only to be detained at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. The Clinton administration wanted to stop potential riots at Guantanamo and curtail future emigration, while Castro had to find a way to stop his own people from fleeing.
Under a deal struck at a meeting in Canada, the 20,000 Cuban refugees were granted visas to enter the United States. In exchange, the Clinton administration reversed a 30-year-old policy of guaranteed access for Cuban refugees.
Having been excluded from the policymaking process and faced with enforcing a policy with which he disagreed, Hays demanded a new assignment.
It is highly unusual for midcareer government officials to protest a policy because such actions can be career-enders. But Hays was transferred to the Mexican desk. .
The Washington Post wrote, “Clearly [this was] not a demotion. Given the importance of Mexico to this country, one might call it a promotion,” and added that Hays was expected to become ambassador to Uruguay.
In retrospect, the retaliation against him was subtle. Instead of becoming ambassador to Uruguay, he wound up in Suriname and his career at State ended in 2000.
“Dennis was the kind of guy who could be on his fourth ambassadorship,” said Emilio Gonzalez, a partner at Tew Cardenas. “The [Clinton administration officials] let him punch the ambassador’s ticket, saying, ‘Three years in Suriname and you go home.’”
His 24-year career at State ended in 2000.
Hays, 51, grew up a Navy brat, moving from one base to another. He spent his senior year in high school working as a congressional page.
After graduating from the University of Florida, he joined the staff of Rep. Charlie Bennett (D-Fla.), the chairman of an Armed Services subcommittee with oversight over the U.S. Navy.
In 1976, Hays passed the foreign service exam and was shipped to Kingston, Jamaica, to process visas. His next assignment was advancing — or preparing — foreign visits for Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
In 1982, his fellow foreign service officers elected him president of the American Foreign Service Association, the union for foreign service officers.
In 1985, he became the deputy chief of mission in Burundi, which sits in the heart of Africa. Three years later, he was sent back across the Atlantic to Georgetown, Guyana.
While stationed in South America and Africa, Hays jogged with the Marines guarding the U.S. Embassy and, between his stints abroad, joined the Reston Runners Club.
But Hays had to adjust his regimen because the Marines trained to excel at a three-mile run, part of their fitness test. The Reston Runners trained for longer distances, and Hays decided to run an ultra-marathon, typically a 50-mile race or longer.
While learning Dutch to prepare for his ambassadorship, Hays would run to and from his language classes.
In 1996, he finished his first 50-mile race. Since then, he has done three more.
“It’s not as bad as one would think,” said Hays, whose shock of white hair, medium build, and easygoing manner make it hard to believe he is also a distance runner. “You curse and swear and wonder what you’re doing, but finishing gives you a tremendous sense of accomplishment.”
Anna Bradford, president of the Reston Runners, said, “It was pretty clear pretty quickly that his training was very haphazard.”
Hays is now a leader of the club, designing courses and keeping members abreast of local politics that might threaten running trails. Last year, he led an adventure run, which combined solving riddles, paddling boats, biking while holding eggs, tossing water balloons and running relays.
Before joining Tew Cardenas in 2003, Hays was executive vice president of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), the powerful U.S.-based Cuban-exile pressure group.
Through his work at State and CANF, Hays met Al Cardenas, the former chairman of the Florida Republican Party and name partner at Tew Cardenas, and Gonzalez, the former director of Western Hemisphere affairs on the National Security Council in President Bush’s first term.
Tew Cardenas has grown so fast in its three years in Washington that it is moving to a new office. Last week, the firm hired Mary Beth Nethercutt, wife of former Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash.), and Jay Timmons, a top GOP political strategist.
Hays provides advice to the firm’s biggest clients, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and the Manufacturers Association of Haiti. He also represents Thorium Power, a company aiming to turn weapons-grade plutonium into safe energy.
But Hays’s most interesting client is a Cuban dancing troupe, the Havana Night Club. Last year, he helped more than 50 dancers navigate the U.S. immigration bureaucracy to gain asylum in the United States; the troupe is now based in Las Vegas.
Is there any connection between lobbying and running ultra-marathons?
“It’s like dealing with the dancers or plutonium,” Hays said. “Long-distance events take a lot of time and effort, but results come down the road.”