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.

"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.

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.

That promise, however, will not stop Sanchez from attempting to provoke other clashes with the Cuban government. During the Pope's visit to the island last year, Sanchez played a cat-and-mouse game with the Coast Guard while he tried to sneak another boat into Cuban waters. The mission failed, he says, because the seas were too rough. "I had FBI agents trying to find me to see where I was," he recalls with amusement.

In many ways Sanchez is more a danger to the United States in his present role than he ever was as a young commando. His goal is to create scenarios that almost certainly would lead to violent responses from the Cuban military, responses Sanchez hopes will spark a new revolution in Cuba but which could just as easily draw the United States into a clash with the island nation at a time when the administration is hoping to soften its approach toward Castro.

Sanchez doesn't think that far ahead. "We're taking little steps," he says, "but we are moving toward the goals we all want to achieve."

jim_defede@miaminewtimes.com


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