Welcome to Alex Penelas's Banana Republic

It would appear Reno has more faith in the rectitude of Miami's Cuban community than Penelas. And Reno is correct. The majority of the 800,000 Cuban Americans living in Miami-Dade County will not riot if Elian is removed from the house. Those who do decide to lead and participate in unlawful acts have a separate agenda over which neither Penelas nor Reno will have any control.

But in the long run, to acquiesce in such threats and intimidation would be far more destructive to this community than any havoc a few hundred or even a few thousand angry protesters might cause. Besides, what are they going to do? Burn down their own homes in Little Havana? Loot the shops along Calle Ocho? I don't think so. They'll cause traffic jams and maybe shut down the airport and the seaport for a few days. And then order will be restored and life will go on.

The most interesting aspect of Penelas's ill-considered remarks was his reaction to the public's contempt for what he had to say. Within hours of rendering his indictment of Clinton and Reno, the mayor found himself doing a lot of backpedaling, blaming the media for taking his statements out of context. Watching Penelas try to wiggle free of his own words reminded me why I have so little respect for our sexy little mayor. He's a coward.

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)

If he wants to reprise the role of Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who tried to defy the federal government's lawful integration of one of the state's universities, then Penelas should at least be man enough to stand by his words, not disown them. If he passionately believes what he said and was speaking from the heart, then there would have been no reason to clarify his remarks.

Penelas, however, has no heart. He is a political machine driven by polls and the desire to please everyone. He knows the Cubans in Miami will remember his declarations of war; at the same time he hopes to mollify anger within the Anglo and black communities by blaming the media for misinterpreting his comments. He may even succeed.

The Herald noted last week that many political consultants thought Penelas may have actually helped his national political aspirations by raising his level of name recognition. Ultimately the public won't remember what the mayor said, only his name. For a politician like Penelas, that is ideal.

In the meantime folks here in Miami-Dade County might want to ask him a few questions. For instance perhaps the mayor can explain how his bizarre behavior will benefit anyone other than himself. Is his portrayal of Miami as a city on the brink of violent riots more or less likely to attract new businesses to the area? Is it more or less likely to create new jobs? And is it more or less likely to drive businesses out of Miami-Dade County?

During his news conference, Penelas said it was his opinion that removing Elian from South Florida would harm the child. He certainly is entitled to hold such an opinion. And if he were a federal judge assigned to hear the lawsuit brought by Elian's Miami relatives, or if he were the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or if he were the attorney general of the United States, that opinion would matter. But he isn't, and it doesn't.

Penelas's attempt to usurp the authority of those individuals by threatening to use his office to thwart efforts to return this child to his father was not only offensive, it was just plain wrong. By prolonging this travesty, Penelas is only harming Elian. You would think that a man with two boys of his own would be willing to set aside his personal opinions and political ambitions long enough to recognize the right of a father to be with his son.

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