The Sanchez Solution

Ramon Saul Sanchez is an exile leader with charisma, style, and a strong sense of drama

March 29, 9:00 p.m. The outpouring to save Elian from the clutches of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service is reaching a new zenith at the intersection of SW Eighth Street and 22nd Avenue. The event is dubbed "The Cross," both to make a religious statement and because, viewed from above, it appears as if several thousand people have gathered on the pavement in this shape. The crowd listens as the mesmerizing voice of Francisco Santana, a priest from Our Lady of Charity Church in Coconut Grove, emanates from loudspeakers. His sermon soaks the Elian saga in biblical images. He compares the conflict among Cubans to the crucifixion of Christ. "The Cuban people are on the cross of their own pain," Santana laments, "a long, sharp pain that cries out from their forsakenness." He likens the rescue of Elian to that of the baby Moses and then carries the metaphor a step further. "Father protect Elian again," he continues. "Don't allow the hatred of men to drown him now or the symbol of liberation to be transformed into an instrument of slavery."

Ten blocks away Sanchez is outside the Gonzalez house, holding vigil should federal agents arrive to commence the enslavement process. He and several dozen demonstrators are standing in front of the waist-high metal barricade that seals off NW Second Street halfway between 23rd and 24th avenues. The one-story home of Elian's relatives is ahead of them and off to the left; a row of white canopies covering TV crews and equipment lining the south side of Second Street is on their right. As police officers watch, the demonstrators push over the barricade, jog to the gate of the house, and link elbows.

Ramon Saul Sanchez prepares for another interview with a national TV network before returning to the demo
Ed Gluck
Ramon Saul Sanchez prepares for another interview with a national TV network before returning to the demo
Jorge Mas Santos, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, dropped in for a campaign-like appearance, then split
Steve Satterwhite
Jorge Mas Santos, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, dropped in for a campaign-like appearance, then split

Sanchez's human-chain tactic is a perfect linkage of rage and reason, and he is quite aware of its strengths and weaknesses. "If they want to come in and take Elian they can do that, and neither the family nor we are going to be able to do a lot to maintain him here," he admits. "The only thing is the cost to [the government] in terms of public opinion [having] 20 or 30 marshals coming in to take away a child by force who doesn't want to go. He's going to start kicking and yelling and crying." And it would take many law enforcement officers to break the chain, he adds. "But it is more symbolic than anything. It's to show how united everybody is." It would also allow protesters to blow off steam without hurting anybody.

Arguably the INS might have attempted to send Elian back to Cuba much sooner were Sanchez not around. "Our involvement came about because he was going to be sent back without due process of law," he says. "So when we heard that we said, 'Okay, you can't do that.' We started the original civil-disobedience campaign that basically made the government stop and allow time for the legal process to begin. Civil rights are fundamental for us, for the movement, and we will fight for them."

It is a busy night in Elianville. Many who attended The Cross event have dropped by the vigil outside the Gonzalez home. Marisleysis is at the barricade smiling and greeting protesters. The two fishermen who rescued Elian, Donato Dalrymple and Sam Ciancio, are nearby, talking to reporters and basking in the glory. Jorge Mas Santos, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, puts in an appearance. Dressed in a navy-blue suit and tie, he chats with a group of men in front of the Gonzalez house. Then he approaches the barricade and addresses the crowd, urging them to embrace Elian's cause but follow the law. He lacks the magnetism of Sanchez, and many listen unenthusiastically.

Soon Mas Santos leaves without speaking to Sanchez, who declines to comment on relations with other exile organizations. When asked whether Democracia and the foundation cooperate during such crises, he replies, "They don't." He refuses to elaborate other than to say, "We have different views."

But it is clear Sanchez has won the hearts and minds of the most devoted protesters. About 11:00 p.m. he is still talking to journalists and demonstrators. Some who have grown weary are heading to bed. "Ramoncito, Ramoncito," says an elderly man. "We're going home to conserve our energy."

Sanchez's girlfriend, Lourdes Eire, comes by to say hello. "Are you tired?" he asks her. "Are you bored?"

Eire, who is 31 years old, twice says no and leans on the bumper of a nearby van. A little later a woman who has just finished work approaches Sanchez and says she's planning to remain all night. "You want to stay here? That's great," he says. "We need people."

At 1:00 a.m. Sanchez decides to head home. In five hours he must be awake for an interview on a local radio program. He has taken a leave of absence from his $30,000-per-year job as a clerk at a nonprofit company that builds low-income housing in Little Havana. As Sanchez passes the corner of SW Second Street and 24th Avenue, a young stocky woman stops to chat. Her voice is hoarse from chanting slogans. "Get some rest," he counsels her. Then Sanchez and Eire climb into his white 1994 Suzuki Sidekick.

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