Welcome to Alex Penelas's Banana Republic

The U.S. State Department routinely advises Americans living abroad to keep their passports handy. Given the events of last week, it won't be long before the agency includes Miami-Dade County in that advisory. In fact I've begun grabbing my passport whenever I leave the house. It must be obvious to everyone right now that Miami is no longer part of the good ol' U.S.A.

The Cubanization of South Florida was completed on March 29, when Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas declared that the county's police department would not assist in the lawful removal of Elian Gonzalez from his Little Havana home, even if the president of the United States and the attorney general ordered it.

Clearly Penelas doesn't care that a federal judge ruled the attorney general has the authority to order Elian's removal. It doesn't matter to Penelas that he took an oath to defend and support the Constitution of the United States. Evidently Penelas, who is up for re-election this year, has decided that pandering to the Cuban exile community is more important than living up to his responsibilities as an elected official.

Alex Penelas, a man of the people (as long as those people are Cuban-American voters)
AP/Wide World Photo
Alex Penelas, a man of the people (as long as those people are Cuban-American voters)

Penelas wasn't alone in threatening federal authorities. Miami Mayor Joe Carollo made a similar pronouncement, as did a handful of other mayors, the precise number of which seems to be dropping by the hour. The public has come to expect nutty statements from Carollo, but Penelas was supposed to be different in such matters. He is a Democrat, after all. He also was viewed as someone capable of bridging the often fractious divide between Cuban Americans and everyone else in Miami-Dade County.

Coincidentally Penelas uttered his now infamous words the same day the New York Times, in an editorial, called for all sides in the Elian Gonzalez case to show restraint. "Responsible voices in the Cuban-American community need to step forward to mediate the situation," the Times editorial stated. But last week Penelas showed the entire nation that he is not one of those responsible voices. Presented with an opportunity to play the role of dignified statesman in this crisis, he opted instead for irresponsible, inflammatory rhetoric. Lashing out at both President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno, the mayor threw a childish temper tantrum on the steps of the federal courthouse.

"If their continued provocation, in the form of unjustified threats to revoke the boy's parole, leads to civil unrest and violence, we are holding the federal government responsible, and specifically Janet Reno and the president of the United States, for anything that may occur in this community," Penelas vowed ominously. If Miami should erupt, he appeared to be saying, the blame would lie with the federal government, not with those who would incite and commit the mayhem. Miami's potential rioters were being absolved in advance of blame for any violence that might occur.

Reporters tried to ask the mayor follow-up questions. If federal marshals came to Little Havana to remove Elian, would local police be willing to provide crowd control so the marshals wouldn't be injured? The mayor stammered and didn't seem to know what to say. If local police did provide such crowd control, wouldn't they in effect be helping federal authorities remove the child? Penelas said the press was splitting hairs and then tried to explain how he would handle each request for assistance on a "case by case" basis.

Lovely. In addition to his duties as mayor, Penelas will also now assume the role of dispatcher, deciding on an individual basis which calls warrant a response from the police.

A few hours later, President Clinton held a press conference, primarily to announce a deal struck with OPEC that would likely result in lower gas prices. But the questions soon turned to the supercharged atmosphere surrounding Elian. (White House reporters consistently referred to Penelas as the "mayor of Miami," an appropriate diminution of stature under the circumstances.)

"Mr. President," one correspondent began, "the mayor of Miami, back on the Elian Gonzalez case, the mayor of Miami said today that he would withhold any assistance from the city, including police, if federal authorities decide to return Elian Gonzalez to Cuba, and that if there were any violence in the streets, he would hold you and Attorney General Reno personally responsible for that. That seems to sound like an invitation for the community to block federal authorities, and an assurance to them that the Miami police will stand aside."

"Well I like the mayor very much," Clinton responded, "but I still believe in the rule of law here. We all have to, whatever the law is, whatever decision is ultimately made, the rest of us ought to obey it."

You know you're way out of line when the president -- particularly this president -- has to lecture you on the rule of law.

Reno made similarly reasoned comments when pressed about Penelas's attempt to demonize her. She noted that she has allowed the relatives months to pursue their claims in court, even though she could have attempted to return the child to Cuba at any time. "But then some officials yesterday suggested that if we take action, it is a provocation, a provoking of people that would produce risk, that would produce violence," Reno said. "They said that they would not be responsible for that, that I would be. The people I know in the Cuban community came to this country and have contributed so much to it because they believe in the rule of law. I don't think they came to this country to incite violence."

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