Leadership Abhors a Vacuum

"Leadership grows from within the people," Sanchez observes. "True leadership comes from within the people. There cannot be appointed leaders." It remains to be seen how Sanchez will deal with his developing power. To his credit, though, he has refused to personally profit from his success. He has rejected offers by some in the exile community to financially support him so he could devote all his energy to la causa. Instead he earns $30,000 a year as the office manager of a nonprofit organization providing low-income housing for people in Little Havana. "I need to feel that I earn my living with my own work," he explains, adding that he wouldn't want to take money that could otherwise be used to help the struggle to create a democratic Cuba. "I couldn't do that," he says.

Sanchez has devoted everything to this fight, sacrificing his personal life along the way. Next week his fourth divorce in fifteen years will become final. "I could not dedicate the time that they deserved," he says, referring to his former wives. "They have all been excellent women. I'm sure I would have been very happy had I not been involved in this movement."

To appreciate the Ramon Saul Sanchez of today, you need to consider his past. Sanchez came to the United States during the Freedom Flights of 1967. He was fifteen years old, and almost immediately joined Alpha 66, a paramilitary group based in Miami and dedicated to the violent overthrow of the Castro government. Although today Alpha 66 is largely a farcical faction of would-be warriors who play soldier in the Everglades, the Alpha 66 of the late Sixties and early Seventies was a true paramilitary force, and Sanchez was one of its proudest members, taking part in several raids on Cuba.

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

In those days the fight against Castro was waged as much in the United States as it was through clandestine strikes on the island, and the most violent contingent was a group known as Omega 7, which between 1975 and 1982 claimed credit for a string of more than 30 bombings in New York and Miami. In 1980 the group gunned down an attaché to Cuba's United Nations mission and later planted a bomb under the car of Cuba's chief UN delegate, Raul Roa Kouri, in an unsuccessful attempt to kill him.

In 1982 Sanchez was subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury in New York examining the activities of Omega 7. By that time he was the head of his own anti-Castro group, the Organization for the Liberation of Cuba, several of whose participants were under investigation for alleged membership in Omega 7 as well. (Eventually three individuals in Sanchez's OLC were convicted on attempted-murder charges for their role in the plot to blow up Kouri's car.)

Sanchez publicly denied he was a member of Omega 7, but he refused to testify before the grand jury in 1982. As a result he was indicted and ultimately convicted in 1984 on criminal contempt-of-court charges, and spent four and a half years in prison.

This wasn't Sanchez's first encounter with American jurisprudence. A few years earlier he'd been arrested for threatening a plain-clothes detective with a gun. The cop had been assigned to follow Sanchez and monitor his movements. Sanchez claimed he mistakenly thought the police officer was a member of Cuba's special security forces sent to Miami to kill him. Despite his protestations of innocence, he was convicted of aggravated assault. The conviction was overturned on appeal.

There was no reprieve, however, from the federal contempt charges. Prison had a profound affect on Sanchez. The everyday brutality and destructiveness of prison life repulsed him, and when he was freed in 1988 he says he rejected violence as a means for bringing about change in Cuba. "It has to be moral and it has to be nonviolent," he says today regarding the fight to free Cuba.

Sanchez is certainly not the first Cuban exile to come to this conclusion. Basulto, a Bay of Pigs veteran, has also adopted the nonviolent approach of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, one of the original leaders of Alpha 66, spent 22 years in Cuban prisons, during which time he came to believe that violence was foolhardy and the best way to bring democratic reform to Cuba was through dialogue.

Subscribing to the tenets of nonviolence is not the same as being a pacifist, Sanchez is quick to point out. In the ten years since he was released from prison, he has employed an increasingly aggressive strategy of civil disobedience. In 1988 he formed a group called the National Cuban Commission, which initially started out organizing rallies and protests in Little Havana. By 1995, in protest of Clinton's policies toward Cuba, he led an effort to block toll plazas and tie up traffic. Later that year, on July 13, the National Cuban Commission organized an expedition into Cuban territorial waters. As Sanchez and others tossed flowers into the water, Cuban gunboats closed in on the fishing boat Democracia, ramming it several times and forcing it to return to the United States.

The dramatic encounter was captured on videotape and served as a lightning rod for Cuban Americans in Miami. Sanchez immediately renamed his organization Movimiento Democracia. Seeking to ease rather than exacerbate tensions with Cuba, federal authorities in December of this past year impounded one of the group's boats. Early in 1999 Sanchez went on a hunger strike to pressure the United States to return the vessel. U.S. officials obliged, but only after extracting a promise from Sanchez that the boat would not leave U.S. territorial waters until a judge could decide whether the federal government overstepped its authority by seizing the craft.

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