The Magazine

Miami Virtue

The citizens of Miami are indignant, determined -- and right

Apr 10, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 29 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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Miami, March 30

According to the Miami police, there are 20,000 people lining the streets of Little Havana. The crowd is packed into about a dozen city blocks, and from the air, illuminated by thousands of flashlights, it can be seen forming the shape of a cross. It is probably the largest prayer vigil in the city's history, and it has been organized to protest the Clinton administration's plan to send 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez back to Cuba.

At the intersection of 8th Street and 19th Avenue, the center of the cross, a priest stands atop a stage to address the crowd. The stoplight above him changes from red to green and back. The people beneath him are almost totally silent. Some hold crucifixes aloft. Others are on their knees in prayer. Remain organized and restrained, the priest says, and do not commit violence. Cubans, he reminds the crowd, are not the sort of people who break things.

In fact there seems little danger of that happening. This must be among the least threatening crowds of angry people ever assembled. Hardly anyone looks desperate or dispossessed. No one is drinking. There are a surprising number of couples with children. It's steaming hot, but just about everyone is freshly scrubbed, many in ironed polo shirts and blue jeans with dry-cleaning creases. They are for the most part middle-aged, middle class, and well behaved. It could be the crowd at a Bruce Springsteen concert.

An informal survey of protesters finds relatively few who still live in the immediate area. Most have come from more affluent parts of Miami, or from neighboring Broward and Palm Beach counties. Little Havana is where many of these people used to live. Today it is swelling with newer, poorer immigrants from Central and South America, becoming more like Little Managua every day. For many the rally is a kind of reunion, a chance to spend an evening in the old neighborhood making a stand for the anti-Castro cause.

And many are indeed just standing. Every third person seems to be wearing tiny, safety-yellow Sony headphones. They are listening to the radio. There are three Cuban talk radio stations in Miami, and if you want news about what is happening in the city's exile community, you listen to them. (To keep abreast of demonstrations, the mayor's office and the police department monitor all three.) Tonight, the radio is reporting recent developments in Elian's case. The boy's Miami relatives, primarily his father's uncle and the uncle's daughter, have cared for Elian since his mother drowned while bringing him to America in a small boat in November. The uncle has petitioned for guardianship, which would allow Elian to grow up in Miami. But the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the INS's boss, Attorney General Janet Reno, have acceded to the alleged desire of the boy's father in Cuba (who had been estranged from Elian's mother) to take custody. While court appeals continue, the INS is threatening to bring matters to a head by revoking the boy's visa.

Those who don't have headphones can get the news from civic-minded radio owners. On one block, an elderly man pushes an Eisenhower-era bicycle down the street. A radio powered by a car battery that has been tied to the rear fender has been secured to the handle bars with electrician's tape. Ten feet away, a woman has slung a booming boombox from the handle of her baby carriage. Across the street, a van is parked in front of the premium pump at a gas station. Two old-fashioned bullhorn speakers are mounted on the roof, and both are blaring a scratchy AM signal.

The crowd is listening to find out if Elian Gonzalez's family has come to an agreement with the INS. There is something postmodern about the scene -- thousands of participants in a political demonstration not really participating. On the other hand, the INS negotiations are not a minor matter. If they break down, Elian could be returned to Cuba within days. No one is monitoring the news more closely than Ramon Saul Sanchez. Sanchez is Miami's acknowledged master of political street theater. If Elian is taken from Miami, Sanchez plans to lead many more demonstrations in Little Havana, all less restrained than this one.

Sanchez is sometimes referred to as the Al Sharpton of the Cuban exile set. It is true that both are confrontational and publicity-hungry, though unlike Sharpton, a pudgy former FBI informant, Sanchez has genuine revolutionary credentials. Sanchez came to the United States from Cuba as a teenager in 1967 and promptly joined Alpha 66, the most militant anti-Castro group of the time. Within a short period he was carrying a gun (he was later arrested for pulling it on an undercover police detective) and making secret forays into Cuba with fellow Alpha 66 commandos.