Small Town, Big Hell

Election time in Sweetwater is just another pretext for this rancorous city to go nuts

The 38-year-old Diaz has always had to prove himself. As one of the first Cuban kids in Sweetwater, he recalls constantly fighting with the "redneck" children. He yearns to be mayor and officially began campaigning in mid-September. "I want to have my daughters proud of me, that's what it is all about," he says.

For a while it looked as though the race for mayor belonged to Diaz and Bango. (Most pundits agree that another candidate, Jose Correa, has little chance of winning.) But minutes before the 5:00 p.m. March 26 deadline, Evaristo "Ever" Marina entered the fray. That came as a surprise because Marina had registered in March 1997 to run for the seat of State Sen. Robert Casas of Hialeah, who will vacate his position in the year 2000. As if spontaneity were a virtue in a public official, Marina likes to say: "I went to bed thinking about the state senate and woke up thinking about the mayorship." A pledge of support from Miriam Alonso also helped sway his thinking. Of course Alonso can't admit that, he confides.

Marina launched his quest for the state senate seat a scant six months after winning election to the Miami-Dade County Fire Board. Now he wants to be mayor of Sweetwater. The same day he filed his papers, he quit the fire board.

The 68-year-old Marina sits at a table in the Tamiami Trail eatery Wajiros. His blue eyes sparkle while he talks excitedly with a slight lisp. He is the man on the white horse, he insists. "I am not part of the problem," he says. "I am the solution."

His campaign platform is simple: If you vote for Marina, Bango and Diaz and the discord they bring to Sweetwater will disappear. All he has to do is force a run-off election. "Pepe or Gloria, it makes no difference," he says. "Whoever loses will go with me." The enemy of my enemy is my friend. "It has fallen into my hands," he crows.

Marina says his late entry will actually benefit him. He has planned to use all his money to win the election in the final weeks. For example he is sending the small newspaper he publishes, called El Nuevo Universal, to every registered voter in Sweetwater. Ten of his canvassers are knocking on doors, paying special attention to Diaz's neighborhood for the psychological impact, he says. He has a phone bank prepared. He also has plans for radio commercials, and T-shirts and hats.

But if the past is any indicator, Marina's victory might not be as guaranteed as he believes it is. Marina, a former Interior Ministry official in prerevolutionary Cuba before he came to the United States in 1959, has made campaigning a career. In the past 25 years he has reportedly run more than ten times for political office with only one success, the fire board. He has tried and failed to win positions as a school board member, Miami mayor, Sweetwater mayor, Sweetwater council member, and state representative for Little Havana, among other seats. In one case he was disqualified by the courts for failing the six-month residency requirement. As a mayoral candidate for Sweetwater in 1991, election officials disqualified him after discovering he had registered as a resident for a school board election in another part of the county only five months before.

Marina's school board candidacy made some sense, because much of his career here has been spent running a school he founded in 1968, the Miami Aerospace Academy. The military-style school, where students referred to him as "El General," closed in 1989 mired in scandal. In 1985 allegations that a group of boys had sexually abused some of their younger classmates surfaced in the local media. In 1987 a cadet was charged with the rape of a five-year-old girl. A year later state investigators probed allegedly poor living conditions at the institution. Finally Marina closed the school because of financial problems. "They could never prove anything," he asserts. "Why don't they say anything about the 13,000 students who passed through the school with military discipline?" When he talks about the past, Marina prefers to concentrate on his service as a president of the Latin American Chamber of Commerce and as founder of a Lions Club chapter in Sweetwater.

"Trust me, I know what I am doing," he insists.
Marina's longevity and constant campaigning have made him a well-known figure in Sweetwater. He receives a friendly reception at two of Sweetwater's main gathering places, the Latin Cafeteria and Bakery and La Esquinita Habanera restaurants, which both front SW 107th Avenue on either side of SW Second Street.

But the mood among some of the electorate, who gather in front of the open windows of the restaurants drinking coffee, is one of irritation. Most of those queried say they won't vote. Cesar Urquiola's response is typical. In the eighteen years since he left Cuba, he has voted many times, but not anymore. "I won't vote again," he says. "[The politicians] don't work for the benefit of the community. None of them have the capacity to make things better."

At Beny's Barber shop around the corner, discussions of politics are not encouraged. "It brings problems," one of the haircutters explains. "The politicians are pigs and the people are tired of it."

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