Meet Miami's Next Mayor

Political gangster or humble servant, Miriam Alonso wins either way

The candidate herself, who appears regularly on Spanish-language radio programs hosted by allies, refused to grant New Times an interview. She declined comment on the scandals floating in her wake -- the lawsuits, the apparent lies, the angry tenants, the unpaid bills. She declined comment on her goals and vision for the city. And of course she declined comment on the fundamental irony of her candidacy -- that her army is poised to elect a mayor whose demeanor and tactics bear a menacing resemblance to the leader they fled.

Her silence on these issues will cost her little. Most insiders figure she has the mayor's race sewed up. Soon enough she expects Art Teele to announce his valued endorsement. As the county commission chairman has explained to confidants, Miriam Alonso is not a woman he wants to cross.

The Veiled Past
Pinned next to the door that leads to Alonso's inner sanctum at city hall (a door whose glass has been conspicuously refashioned into a one-way mirror) is an eye-catching calendar. A tribute to Hispanic women created by the promotions department at Miller Brewing Company, the 1993 edition features Alonso as its January cover girl, and the calendar has been opened to January since it arrived. Strikingly slim and youthful in her stylized portrait, the commissioner hovers in front of Miami's skyline; below her are testimonial words such as "compassionate," "honest," and "patriotic." "When Miriam Alonso defected from Castro's Cuba in the early 60s," the accompanying biography reads, "little did she suspect that her odyssey would lead her to the highest levels of Miami city government."

But there is a problem here: Miriam Alonso didn't defect from Cuba in the early Sixties. She defected in August 1966, nearly five years after Fidel Castro declared himself a Communist.

Miguel Bretos, the Miami-based historian who wrote the calendar biography, says he based his account on a resume sent to him by Miller Brewing, which had gotten it from Alonso's office. Though unable to locate the resume today, Bretos did keep the original draft of his biography. It notes that Alonso taught school in the United States beginning in 1964, two years before she and her husband abandoned Castro. "I had no idea when the Alonsos defected, so that came straight from her resume," Bretos says. "I did call her office several times for additional information, but they never called back."

To those brutalized during Castro's early years in power, the erroneous calendar stands as evidence that Alonso has revised her Communist legacy. For the rest of Miami the discrepancy may seem a quibble. But a more basic question persists: Just who is Miriam Alonso?

Don't expect any answers from Alonso. Over the years, the commissioner has remained so evasive about her past that not even long-time friends are sure of much. She refused to provide New Times with her resume, even after receiving a Florida public-records request; nor would she provide one to the city's own public information office. The following account has been pieced together from newspaper articles, books, public documents, and numerous interviews.

Alonso was born in Havana in 1941, the daughter of Guillermo Ara, a prominent politician who opposed the dictatorship of Gen. Gerardo Machado. As a student at the University of Havana she met, and later married, Leonel Alonso, a man nine years her senior and a leader in the powerful student union, the Federation of University Students. In 1955 Leonel was narrowly defeated in his run for president of the 17,000-member union, which, like the exiled Fidel Castro, sought the ouster of dictator Fulgencio Batista. Leonel, however, remained an active revolutionary. In September 1955, for example, he helped lead an armed raid on a government television station. The young couple, not surprisingly, lived in tumult.

"Whenever they would have problems, Miriam would come and knock on my door, and we would go get him from jail," recalls Salvador Lew, a former classmate of Leonel's who hosts a radio program on Miami's Cadena Azul (WRHC-AM 1550).

Though Castro enjoyed popular support when he overthrew Batista in 1959, he soon declared himself a Communist and began a sweeping purge. Thousands of perceived and real dissidents were detained, tortured, and executed. Miriam Alonso's own father was imprisoned for two years. But amid the bloodshed and growing exodus from the island, the Alonsos prospered. Leonel rose quickly in Castro's diplomatic corps. He served mid-level roles in Indonesia and the Middle East before being posted in 1964 as the top-ranking Cuban diplomat in Syria and Lebanon.

In August 1966, Leonel Alonso was reported missing from Beirut. He surfaced a week later in Miami, the most recent in a wave of high-level Cuban diplomats to defect. U.S. officials, who viewed these defections as an embarrassment to Castro, were thrilled. At a hastily organized news conference Leonel embraced the role of an anti-Castro Cold Warrior. He detailed the subversive acts required of Cuban diplomats, speculated that Castro had killed fellow revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, and optimistically predicted the imminent downfall of El Tirano. A photograph of the event shows Leonel reading a prepared statement. His young wife, sullen and gorgeous, can be seen in the background tending to their only child, five-year-old Marisa.

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