Meet Miami's Next Mayor

Part 2: Miriam Alonso knows how to put votes together, but she can't seem to separate dirty tricks from politics

Viso refers, of course, not to ideology but to methodology. Not to proven fact but to emotional truth. The wellspring of his indignation -- I was a political prisoner; so were these men -- doesn't arise from what may or may not have happened outside Versailles restaurant in Miami 1993, but from what occurred in Havana 1959.

To experience the rage vented by Viso and his comrades -- the purgative bang on a kitchen table, the rasp of a voice screamed hoarse -- is to understand what playwright Rene Ariza meant when he observed that "Cuba's problem is not Fidel, but the Fidel we all carry inside."

Viewed from this vantage point, Miriam Alonso is not Fidel's antidote but his heir. And to the once faithful, the revelation of her true nature has become a re-enactment of the betrayal that landed them here.

Miriam and the Media
There was this matter of the mirrored disco ball, and whether any inadvertent beams of light would detract from the gravity of the message. The disco ball hung from the ceiling of Centro Vasco restaurant's banquet room, where Miriam Alonso was preparing to hold a press conference. She stood before a podium at the front of the room, facing a bank of TV cameras. Her aides were worried, however, that reflected dots might begin drifting over the commissioner as she spoke.

This would not do at all. The subject today was one of utmost seriousness, and the commissioner's presentation, as always, was paramount. For the occasion her hair was customarily large and sandy red, her lipstick a scarlet slash that matched her blazer. The outfit, in sum, radiated an air of subdued glamour, one not lost on the little people who would watch her on the evening news.

She began in English, describing her goodwill trip to Germany, where she had met with tourism officials and politicians to assure them that, despite the recent rash of brutal tourist attacks, Miami was a safe place to visit. The disco ball, thankfully, did not intrude.

When she finished, she opened the forum to questions. But instead a somewhat awkward silence ensued, broken finally by a voice shouting from the back of the room: "≠Miriam, por favor, en espanol!" At this the commissioner smiled humbly and, without pause, sailed into a flawless recitation of the same speech in her native tongue. And all at once the room came alive. Dormant cameras whirred to life. Tape recorders clicked on. Reporters set about a flurry of scribbling.

For the Spanish-language media Alonso's return from Germany was the last installment in a well-chronicled crusade to polish Miami's tarnished image. She had, after all, paid for two radio commentators, Marta Flores and Raquel Regalado, to accompany her on the whirlwind tour, and both had filed dispatches from abroad. Alonso again had proven herself a woman of action to her admirers, many of whom viewed the tourist attacks as an affront to, rather than a byproduct of, their fair city.

Coverage in the English-language media had been miserly by comparison. The Herald, in particular, noted that local tourism officials had pleaded with Alonso not to go, fearing she would stir up more negative publicity. Columnist Liz Balmaseda acidly reduced the trip to comic relief by noting the hypocrisy of Alonso reassuring wary Deutschlanders when, just three months earlier, the commissioner had placed her panicky calls to 911 after burglars broke into her daughter's home.

More than anything the mid-May press conference was a vivid example of the schism Alonso has wrought on Miami's press. To English-language reporters she is a strident, often manipulative force. But to the Latin press, especially the radio broadcasters who cater to el exilio, Alonso is something of a folk hero.

"My business is news, and she is the politician that generates more news than any other elected official here in South Florida," notes Tomas Regalado, general news editor at Radio Mambi (WAQI-AM 710). "She's articulate and speaks to the issue. That's why she's the darling of the media."

Regalado's wife Raquel, who hosts a popular afternoon talk show on Mambi, offers an enthusiastic second. "Miriam is the person who knows reality," she says. "Many officials, after they are elected, lose contact with the community. They feel they are God. Miriam stays on top of every angle and she is the one commissioner who will return your call -- always." This availability makes her a frequent Regalado guest. "We have no personal relationship," she explains. "It is more of a public relation."

Marta Flores, on the other hand, is an unabashed Alonso groupie. "I've had a deep friendship with Miriam even before she became involved in politics," says Flores, host of "La Noche y Usted" on La Cubanisima (WQBA-AM 1140). Flores proudly identifies herself as the woman who serves as announcer for Alonso's radio campaign ads and at rallies. "What I like most about Miriam Alonso is her dedication when she believes in something, her combativeness," Flores emphasizes. "When she believes in something, she will defend it, as I will, until the end. She is aggressive in her beliefs. I call it leadership."

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