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All have been honored this year with their own official "day" by Dade County and/or the City of Miami. In fact, in a flurry of bond paper and fancy script, the city has dedicated more than 170 such days since January, while the county gives out 60 to 100 each month. Family reunions, retiring bureaucrats, and high school sports teams are favored recipients, but just about anybody can join the fun. "It is very difficult to get something turned down," affirms Vivian Manduca, a clerk in the county's protocol office.
In late August they faxed a letter to every city and county commissioner, asking that September 6 -- the day of their annual awards banquet -- be proclaimed Cuban American Defense League Day in recognition of the group's ongoing efforts to promote civil rights and democratic principles in South Florida.
"We address you with the sincere hope that by working together we can open better channels of communication that can improve our mutual understanding within this community," they wrote, and went on to announce the honorees at this year's banquet: Adora Obi Nweze, president of the local NAACP; Rep. Esteban Torres, a Democratic congressman from California; and Miami businessman and radio personality Francisco Aruca.
Those last two names were guaranteed to raise hackles in the local exile community. Torres not only visited Cuba but spoke with Castro himself and proposed legislation that would allow U.S. companies to sell medicine and food directly to the island. Aruca, president of Radio Progreso, produces one of the only local Spanish-language radio programs advocating dialogue with Castro and runs a charter company that until recently ran direct flights to Cuba.
Almaguer and Levy say they were pleasantly surprised when Miami Vice Mayor Tomas Regalado's assistant Hilda Felipe told them that Thelma Gibson, who is replacing indicted former commissioner Humberto Hernandez until an election determines his successor, would issue the proclamation. "We were thrilled," says Levy, who hoped Gibson would also accept an award on behalf of Obi Nweze, who was unable to attend.
But three days passed and they heard nothing more. When he rang up Gibson's chief of staff Juanita Brown, Levy was told the commissioner would be too busy to fill out the proclamation or attend the banquet. "By telephone they gave it to us, and by telephone they took it away," he says wryly.
Gibson says she turned down the invitation to accept Obi Nweze's award because she had a previous commitment on the night of the banquet. As for the request for a 'day,' no such solicitation ever crossed her desk, the interim commissioner insists. "I never got any letter asking for a proclamation," she says.
Hilda Felipe figures it must have been a misunderstanding. Her boss vetoed the idea, she explains, so she passed the request along to Gibson's office and relayed the news to Almaguer. "I didn't promise them, because I can't promise what other people will do," she declares.
Says Regalado: "Anybody who is associating with people who defend the Castro regime, I consider them people who do not deserve a proclamation. It's not that it's not politically correct, it's just that it's my belief, and they have to respect it." His own father, Regalado explains, was imprisoned by the Castro regime for twenty years.
Meanwhile over at county hall, the league's request was eliciting a proclamation of sorts, from Metro Commissioner Natacha Millan. "With this letter, responding to your sincere hopes, I am hereby opening a better channel of communications, although I seriously doubt it will remain open, much less improve your understanding of this community," commenced Millan's sarcasm-laced screed, which made it abundantly clear that she had no intention of honoring the Cuban American Defense League. She reiterated her opinions on Spanish-language radio and in the Spanish weekly Exito. (The commissioner declined to discuss the issue for this story, saying through her chief of staff Terry Murphy that she stands by the letter.)
"If it wasn't tragic, it would be a comic letter," says Levy, who sees Millan's response and the lack of support from non-Cuban commissioners as further proof of the need for a First Amendment watchdog group such as his. "We are a legitimate organization, and we want the establishment to prove that we live in a community like any other in America," he protests.
A self-described "radical for civil rights," Levy came to the United States from Cuba in 1955 when he was 21 years old. He served two years in the U.S. Navy, then worked as a traveling salesman before going into business manufacturing women's handbags. In his retirement, he has devoted himself to the Cuban American Defense League, which he formed five years ago after an Americas Watch report called "Dangerous Dialogue" drew attention to intolerance within the Cuban community in Miami. He and his wife also operate Jewish Solidarity, an organization that funnels aid to Jews in Cuba. Though he lost his eyesight in late adulthood to a degenerative genetic disease, he and Almaguer make four trips a year to the island to distribute supplies such as powdered milk, books, and medicine.