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.

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.

Elian Gonzalez's house may be the most famous landmark in Miami these days. Every cab driver knows how to get there. Satellite trucks line the street for blocks in both directions. There is nothing remarkable about the house itself. Like most in Little Havana, it is small and stucco and surrounded by a metal fence. There are Christmas lights hanging from the rain gutter, and two enormous flags, Cuban and American, fluttering on the lawn. Bright colors are a theme in the neighborhood. Though the Gonzalez house is painted a fairly conventional shade of white, other homes on the street span the full supermarket spectrum: mustard yellow, tangerine orange, grapefruit pink, mint-jelly green.

More than 100 members of the news media sit beneath tents across the street staring at the house all day long. Small groups of Cuban men enter, exit, and take no questions. Spokesmen emerge for periodic briefings. Once or twice a day, Elian himself may come out to play on the yellow slide in his front yard. And that's it. There isn't, in other words, a lot going on at Elian's house.

Things get a bit more exciting one morning when a female onlooker in her twenties is overcome by the heat. Friends help her into a chair, while someone calls the fire department. Paramedics arrive, confirm she will be fine, then leave. As an EMT talks to the woman, a network soundman dangles a boom mike overhead to capture the exchange. No fewer than seven cameramen crowd in to film it. The press horde is getting desperate for news.

The public, meanwhile, continues to show up at the house. Tourists come to have their pictures taken in front of the police barricades. A group of middle-aged women assembles every morning to chat and smoke under an umbrella. Vendors hawk T-shirts, Cheetos, and cold drinks. A man walks through the crowd selling chewing gum. A couple of neighborhood oddballs shuffle back and forth talking to themselves. A steady stream of protesters arrive with homemade signs on sticks. Many of the signs make reference to God.

From the beginning, there has been a mystical subplot to the Elian Gonzalez story. Shortly after he was pulled from the ocean last November, the boy told rescuers about a group of dolphins that had followed him as he floated alone in his inner tube. Many supporters came to believe that the dolphins were guardian angels, sent by God not simply to protect the boy's life, but as a sign of the boy's destiny as the redeemer of Cuba. Castro, they said, knew of Elian's power and feared him. Rumors circulated that, once Elian was returned to Cuba, Castro would sacrifice him to the pagan gods of Santeria.

Elian's relatives in Miami did little to dispel such talk. Late last month, the family announced that an image of the Virgin Mary had appeared on a mirror in Elian's bedroom. A few days before, employees at a nearby bank had discovered what they believed was an apparition of the Virgin, visible to some in a streak on the building's front window. A large shrine of candles, flowers, and petitions soon grew at the bank's entryway. Both events were widely taken as evidence that God was using Elian for His own larger purposes.

For believing Christians in Miami, it is not a stretch to see the fight over where Elian should live as a fairly straightforward battle between good and evil. There is no freedom of worship in Cuba. The Communist regime is actively hostile to independent churches and to religious faith in general. Elian's return to Cuba would at the very least constitute a plunge back into state-encouraged atheism. "I don't believe in God," Elian's maternal grandmother, Raquel Rodriguez, announced in February on Cuban television, thereby confirming the worst fears of religious exiles. "To hell with God!" (During the same program, Elian's paternal grandmother, Mariela Quintana, made what still ranks as the strangest statement of the whole saga. "I took out his tongue and I bit it," Quintana said, explaining how she had greeted her grandson during her recent trip to the United States. "I unzipped his fly to see if it's grown.")

By the end of last week, there was not yet a cult of Elian, but it was becoming easier to imagine one developing. On the night of the Little Havana prayer rally, a placard was raised outside of the Gonzalez house: "Elian is the Child King," it said in Spanish. Another sign was more explicit: "Elian is Christ." If the local Catholic authorities were offended by such obviously blasphemous sentiments, none said so officially. One Dade County priest, the Rev. Gustavo Miyares, told the Miami Herald that in his opinion, "it is not so unusual that some people in Miami are seeing [Elian] as the new Christ."

Outside the Gonzalez house on Thursday afternoon, Ramon Saul Sanchez clearly does not have religion on his mind. There have been a number of developments in the Elian case over the past 12 hours, and for the moment, any federal attempt to take the boy from his relatives' house has been postponed until next week. Whether because he doesn't trust the government or because he cannot decelerate from the intensity of the day before, Sanchez is all but ignoring the news. He has gathered the 40 or so onlookers at the scene and is teaching them techniques of civil disobedience.

Sanchez begins with a pep talk. "We are the ones who will protect Elian's rights," he says. "If the U.S. government doesn't give us an option, we will take action." He is speaking softly, but his new students respond as if he has been screaming. "Cuba libre!" they shout, "Cuba libre!"

Within minutes Sanchez has assembled the small crowd into an orderly line. They link arms, forming a human chain. "Uno, dos, tres," the chain recites, marching loudly in place. Then without warning, as a group, they lunge forward. They advance only a few feet, but the effect is jolting. The country fair atmosphere outside Elian's house has vanished. The Juicy Fruit vendor, the shuffling oddballs, the chatting middle-aged women -- suddenly they don't seem like harmlessly charming characters. They seem formidable, defenders of a boy's freedom, resisters against injustice perpetrated by their own government.

Tucker Carlson is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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