Leadership Abhors a Vacuum

n June 29 Ramon Saul Sanchez was working at his day job as an office manager for a community development corporation in Little Havana when he first learned that something terrible was taking place off the coast of Surfside. Tellingly, the first person to call him was a TV reporter. Sanchez asked permission to leave work early and headed home to see for himself what was going on. Almost in disbelief, he watched as television replayed the struggle between a small boatload of Cuban refugees and members of the Coast Guard.

Cuban radio commentators were already urging people to go to the Coast Guard station in Miami Beach to protest the incident. When Sanchez arrived at the station's entrance along the MacArthur Causeway, only a few dozen people had gathered. Several police officers were on the scene. Sanchez walked up to one of them and told him they had better set up an area for people to protest; Sanchez wanted people to be able to walk along the bridge to the station. The officer told him that was impossible, and ordered him to move back.

"You're going to lose this bridge," Sanchez warned. The officer smiled confidently and once again told Sanchez to move back.

Democracia founder Ramon Saul Sanchez promises a movement that is both moral and nonviolent
Michelle Sas
Democracia founder Ramon Saul Sanchez promises a movement that is both moral and nonviolent

Within an hour Sanchez would be the one grinning. By then, hundreds of people had gathered along the south side of the causeway. Traffic was still moving, but not for long. As the crowd swelled, filling the narrow pedestrian walkway, Sanchez climbed over a concrete barrier, walked into oncoming traffic and sat down. As cars quickly stopped around him, he was joined by other protesters, who leaped over barricades and began lying down beside him on the roadway. Soon all eastbound lanes of the causeway were blocked. Cars were snarled for miles. Sanchez had made good on his promise: The police lost the bridge. It now belonged to him.

During the next few hours, the scene would become a magnet for Cuban-American politicians. Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, Miami Mayor Joe Carollo, as well as a half-dozen city and county commissioners arrived. Being politicians, they carried with them their own concerns. They had to walk a precarious line between expressing support for the protesters and trying to restore order to a dangerous situation. Sanchez, though, faced no such divided loyalties.

While Penelas, Carollo, and the other male politicos quickly shed their coats and ties, and rolled up their shirt sleeves in a bid to appear more common and less distant when talking to the burgeoning crowd, Sanchez needed no such contrivances to seem ordinary. He is ordinary, and it's his greatest strength.

It was Sanchez who ultimately decided how events on the bridge would unfold, refusing to end the protest until he was satisfied the Cubans picked up in the water would not be returned to Cuba and would instead remain in the United States. And once that was accomplished, he relinquished the bridge as quickly as he had taken it, pausing just long enough to instruct his supporters to pick up their trash before departing the causeway.

Sanchez's willingness and ability to take control of the situation was one of the more revealing insights gleaned from the day's events. Critics charge that Sanchez, one of the founders of Movimiento Democracia (the Democracy Movement), is a self-aggrandizing publicity hound. And there is no doubt he enjoys the spotlight. But dismissing him so perfunctorily would be a mistake.

Sanchez is no longer merely a rising star in the exile community; he has emerged in recent months as one of its true leaders, and he has stepped into that role with the same confidence he displayed this past month on the causeway. Sanchez isn't alone in vying for the respect and attention of Miami's Cuban community following the death two years ago of Jorge Mas Canosa. Others include José Basulto, founder of Brothers to the Rescue; Jorge Acosta from Agenda Cuba; Pedro Freyre from Facts About Cuban Exiles; Julio Cabarga, president of Cuban Municipalities in Exile; and Silvia Iriondo, leader of Mothers Against Repression.

The increased competition among these myriad groups comes at a time when the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) is trying to maintain its status as the premier exile group in the nation. It is both a testament to Jorge Mas Canosa's unique style, and a criticism of his leadership, that the group he founded was so ill-prepared to produce a leader from within its own ranks following his death.

On Sunday CANF elected as its new president Mas Canosa's son, Jorge Mas Santos. One wonders what choice the foundation's board of directors really had. The 36-year-old Mas Santos is the closest thing local Cubans have to a crown prince, but he has found it difficult to define himself outside the shadow of his legendary father. MasTec, the family business he runs, has not done well in the past few years, though he is widely believed to have set it on a profitable course in recent months.

More troubling for foundation supporters is the belief that Mas Santos seems to have inherited none of his father's charisma. He is considered a bit too imperious and isolated. He too was on the MacArthur Causeway during last month's protest, but rather than grasp the moment, Mas Santos appeared overwhelmed by it. He was far more comfortable at last week's $25,000-a-plate fundraiser featuring President Clinton. His money may buy him access, but it may also breed resentment within the exile community, whose members could easily view him as an elitist, American-born millionaire laying claim to a mantle he has neither fought for nor sacrificed to achieve.

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