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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In 1982, Sanchez was subpoenaed by a New York grand jury looking into the activities of Omega 7, an offshoot of Alpha 66 (exile groups have a thing for cryptic number names) that had claimed credit for scores of bombings and at least 10 killings of pro-Castro Cubans in the United States. Sanchez refused to testify. He spent the next four and a half years in federal prison for contempt of court. A couple of his friends from Omega 7 are now serving life sentences for murder.

Sanchez says he left prison a changed man, determined to follow the precepts of non-violence. He began organizing protests off the coast of Cuba designed to draw attention to the plight of refugees. (In 1995, a boat in one of Sanchez's "flotillas" sank in rough seas, leaving one man dead.) He went on hunger strikes. Last year, in protest of the Clinton administration's Cuba policy, he blocked traffic on a Miami bridge with his body. The 1997 death of Cuban-American National Foundation head Jorge Mas Canosa left Miami exiles without a universally recognized leader. Sanchez remains one of the few people in the city who on short notice can assemble a crowd of volunteers willing to get arrested.

For the past week he has been threatening to do just that. In countless television and radio interviews, Sanchez has described the various acts of civil disobedience he and his supporters will carry out if the feds attempt to take Elian Gonzalez from his Miami relatives. Sanchez promises to close the airport, blockade the Port of Miami, and ring the little boy's home with concentric circles of 18-wheelers. (Many truck drivers in Dade Country are Cuban-Americans.) If all else fails, protesters will form a human chain of bodies outside Elian's front door. No one thinks Sanchez is bluffing. On Wednesday he was summoned to a meeting with Miami's chief of police. By all accounts, the chief was very polite.

It isn't always easy to get a meeting with Sanchez. First it is necessary to find him. Sanchez runs an organization called Democracy Movement. The group has letterhead and sends out press releases, but it has skimped on the physical plant. Democracy Movement's headquarters is located on the second floor of a decrepit strip mall on the outskirts of Miami. When I arrived early Thursday afternoon looking for Sanchez, the office was nearly deserted. The lights were off. A Spanish soap opera blared from a television in the middle of the room. The elderly receptionist was asleep face down on his desk. He lifted his head for a moment when I entered, didn't say a word, then went back to sleep. Finally, a man in a torn Chevy T-shirt emerged from a back room. No, he said, Sanchez was not in, nor was he reachable or likely to be back in the near future. "He's in the streets," the man said, shrugging.

The way to reach Ramon Saul Sanchez, it turns out, is on his cell phone. He spent more than 6,000 minutes on it last month. Sanchez's real office is his car. In it, he and Felipe Rojas, a heavyset aide who wears a diamond pinky ring, cruise the city for hours at a time, doing radio interviews and meeting with supporters. In person, Sanchez doesn't come off at all the way one might expect. He may have been a gun-toting radical in his younger years, but these days he dresses like a real estate agent, in a blue blazer, button-down shirt and tie. He speaks slowly. He never says anything hot-headed or irrational.

It's not that Sanchez has come to accept Castro. Like virtually all Cubans in Miami, he hates Fidel as much as ever. (Only last year, officials at the Miami airport briefly banned the sale of Cigar Aficionado magazine on grounds that the cover story was too friendly to the regime.) It is just that, like many in the exile community, Sanchez has been tamed by age, respectability, and the comforts of middle-class life.

This afternoon, he and Rojas are driving aimlessly around the neighborhood near Elian Gonzalez's house waiting for one of the lawyers on the case to call with a news update. Elian's relatives are downtown at the moment meeting with INS officials. Sanchez wants to know what the government intends to do. At the first hint that federal marshals are on their way to collect Elian, Sanchez plans to shut the city down. The lawyer doesn't call, so Sanchez decides to head for the house to see what is going on.