The Sanchez Solution

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

March 31, 6:30 a.m. Sanchez begins his day with a telephone interview on Argentine radio, just another in a seemingly endless stream of appearances on local, national, and foreign news. The INS has extended Elian's parole for several days to allow for continued negotiations with Lazaro Gonzalez and his lawyers. Sanchez has slept only fifteen hours in the past five days and he is exhausted. After a quick lunch, he rushes to North Miami for a television debate. At 12:30 p.m. he wheels his Sidekick into the parking lot of Channel 2 (WPBT-TV).

He is here to discuss the Elian matter on Issues, a public-affairs program hosted by Helen Ferre. To economize his time, Sanchez also has arranged to meet three men and a woman from NDR, a German TV network, for interviews before and after the show. When Sanchez walks into the WPBT lobby, producer Mary Lou Losada, nattily dressed in matching gray blazer and slacks, greets him and leads him down sterile corridors to a conversation-filled lounge occupied by other guests, including Miami Today publisher Michael Lewis, Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel editorial board member Doug Lyons, and family-law attorney Brenda Shapiro.

Cuban clout: The federal government returned one of Democracia's boats after Sanchez staged a hunger strike
AP/Wide World Photo
Cuban clout: The federal government returned one of Democracia's boats after Sanchez staged a hunger strike
For weeks Sanchez averted political suicide by rallying protesters but keeping them civil  and obedient
Photos by Steve Satterwhite, Ed Gluck
For weeks Sanchez averted political suicide by rallying protesters but keeping them civil and obedient

In the on-air debate that ensues, Sanchez is outnumbered 3-1. Ferre gives Shapiro the opening salvo. "The law of the United States has spoken through its attorney general," the lawyer begins. "And her decision was that only the father could speak for the boy. And given that, yes the boy should be returned to his father...."

Sanchez returns this volley: "Elian has the right to be heard by a court of law ... that can take into account the environment where he is going to be sent back, how the father treated him before, and what exposure to Castro's oppressive regime he's going to have in the future...."

Ferre follows up with a tough question: "Aren't the natural bonds that link parent and child paramount in this case?"

"Of course," says Sanchez, "and the ideal solution for this problem would be for the parent to come here and visit the relatives, for them to get together, all of us out of the picture -- the Cuban government, the U.S. government, the exile community, the media -- and let them resolve the issue of what's in the best interest of the child."

Lyons and Lewis weigh in, calling the Elian affair "a circus" and questioning the boy's ability to decide his own future. Then Ferre asks Sanchez how he and his organization would respond if the INS proceeded with plans to return Elian to his father's custody.

"We are waiting to demonstrate in a nonviolent way and to make sure the Constitution of the United States and the rights of the child are upheld," Sanchez explains. He reiterates his assertion that a court must weigh Cuban repression against the father's custody rights. Shapiro contends Elian's Miami relatives have already had their day in court. "I disagree," Sanchez replies.

After the broadcast, as they head out of the building, Shapiro informs Sanchez that no family court will give much credence to the opinions of a child under the age of twelve. "I deal with custody issues every single day," she tells him. "It's a nightmare." Sanchez just listens politely. They shake hands in the parking lot, where the German TV crew is waiting to interview the Democracia leader in the shade of a tree. The producer, a tall short-haired blond woman, unleashes a new round of interrogation. "You know your critics are accusing you of being cold warriors who are using a six-year-old child for your political interests." Sanchez responds with a bizarre answer that would likely have raised eyebrows among the Channel 2 panel. "The issue here is we are the victims of [the Castro] regime and that child is also the victim of that regime," he says. "The issue is that if [Elian] were returned to Cuba, Castro ... has even said that he's going to put him in the hospital to deprogram him. We know what deprogram means in a totalitarian regime. [Elian] is going to suffer psychologically. And if he cannot be programmed according to Castro's beliefs, he will be made to disappear. It's not partisan politics. It is a human struggle for essential human bodies and human rights."

After another half-hour, Sanchez shakes hands with the German crew and heads back to check on the vigil outside the Gonzalez home. "You know, it's a relief to me to go over there and see things calm," he says.

This Friday afternoon is sunny, and the protest has the feel of a tailgate party. About 50 demonstrators are on the west side of the barricade across NW Second Street; a host of TV crews are abuzz under the row of canopies on the east side of the barrier. Sanchez is soon on the phone for a brief interview with anti-Castro AM-radio personality Tomas Garcia Fuste.

Sanchez had hoped to drop by his Little Havana office, but he is due at the Democracia headquarters on SW Eighth Street in West Miami-Dade.

March 31, 5:00 p.m. Back in his Sidekick, Sanchez heads across town to pick up Democracia press secretary Felipe Rojas and then drive to the group's office. "I'm almost an ignorant man," Sanchez says when asked about the origins of his nonviolence. He says he cannot claim to be a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi or other notable practitioners of the strategy. "If I told you I learned the method I use from anyone I would be lying." He doesn't have time to read, he says. "I'm just a working man. The only thing I own on the face of the Earth is this vehicle. And clothes. But I don't like those too much. The media wants you to wear a suit. And I only own this [car] to move around."

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