The Sanchez Solution

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

He pulls over in front of a one-story house and Rojas climbs into the vehicle. Rojas, who is 54 years old and came to the United States in 1960, is a supervisor at a Miami-Dade County facility for domestic-violence victims. His family has serious anti-Castro credentials. His brother, Pedro, was captured during the Bay of Pigs invasion and suffocated along with nine other prisoners while being transported in the back of a truck. Another brother, Ivan, is in a North Carolina federal prison, serving time for trying to smuggle machine guns and explosives into Cuba in 1993.

"Did you hear last night what [Gonzalez family lawyer] Kendall Coffey said about Elian's father?" Rojas asks, referring to Coffey's allegation that Elian's father, Juan Miguel, told the boy his mother was alive in Cuba.

"Oh yeah, yeah," the Democracia leader replies.

photos by Ed Gluck
Cuban catharsis: Protesters topple a police barricade and then rush to form a human chain outside Elian's temporary home.  Just for practice
Ed Gluck
Cuban catharsis: Protesters topple a police barricade and then rush to form a human chain outside Elian's temporary home. Just for practice

"That's terrible," says Rojas.

A few minutes later, Sanchez pulls into the parking lot of a strip mall on the south side of SW Eighth Street, just west of SW 81st Avenue. He and Rojas walk up a flight of stairs to a small second-story office with three rooms. This is Democracia headquarters.

A grinning José Garcia-Taboada, the group's historian, greets his colleagues. Sanchez and Rojas sit at two desks placed side by side toward the back of the main room. On the wall behind them hangs a red, white, and blue Democracia banner. Sanchez logs on to Democracia's Website (www.democracia.org) and complains about how slow his computer loads. To his left, on the west wall, are a large portrait of José Martí and three smaller ones of prerevolutionary Cuban leaders Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, Ignacio Agramonte, and Maximo Gomez. Next to them are photographs of Thoreau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. On a bulletin board on the east wall is the famous shot of the lone Chinese student standing before a column of tanks during the Tiananmen Square rebellion.

Sanchez says his organization has 16,000 official members and thousands of supporters. Founded in 1988 as the National Cuban Commission, the group adopted a new name in 1995 after Sanchez coordinated a demonstration at sea. When the lead boat, Democracia, entered Cuban waters, it was promptly rammed by two patrol craft from the island. The incident was recorded on videotape, and when it hit the television news in Miami, exiles thought the name of the vessel and the group were the same. Sanchez went with the flow.

Near the door is a small impressionistic drawing of a wave-swept powerboat in high seas. The work, titled Intento de Penetración en Cuba(Attempt to Infiltrate Cuba), was drawn by Democracia member Pablo Correa after foul weather thwarted a protest voyage in late January 1998. Correa, Sanchez, and three other members were aboard the vessel, named Human Rights. Twelve months later the U.S. Coast Guard seized the Human Rightsas Sanchez and several others again prepared to head for Cuba. "We were going to distribute leaflets," Sanchez explains, "copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

In 1998 Democracia sent an unmanned raft with a large balloon tethered to it into Cuban waters. The raft was remote controlled and the balloon had the group's name on it. Sanchez asserts it was visible from Havana for a few days before Cuban authorities took the air out of the protest. "We've managed to change the image of the Cuban exiles," Sanchez asserts. "You know [the image] that these people are Batista supporters and supporters of the old regime."

At about 6:00 p.m., a polite, jovial man with a baritone voice comes in. He is Obie Usategui, the president of Poly Ply Corporation, a plastic-wrap manufacturer. He shakes hands with Sanchez and they sit down. It is their first meeting. Usategui has an idea: a protest with motorcycles. He is a member of a club and knows the leaders of ten such groups who want to help Elian to stay with his Miami relatives. He figures at least 1000 bikers could be mobilized.

"The idea is magnificent," Sanchez says. But he has some concerns. "We have boats, we have planes, and we have trucks that we use in our demonstrations," he continues. "And the person who coordinates [each protest] is from Democracia. Because we don't want to do something that is going to result in chaos. But perhaps one day we can do it." Usategui nods in agreement and suggests that he assemble a list of motorcycle-club leaders. Sanchez repeats his enthusiasm and reservations: "I don't want to do anything chaotic, because that is how we will lose respect." Usategui says he understands and quickly departs.

In a few minutes Sanchez's cell phone rings. It is a Democracia member stationed at the protest vigil outside the Gonzalez home. Sanchez listens for a minute, then hangs up. He has some alarming news: Members of the Antonio Maceo Brigade, a local pro-Castro group, are protesting on SW Eighth Street in Little Havana. He grabs a beige megaphone and jogs down to his car with Rojas. Sanchez is worried the demonstration could spark exiles' wrath. "They [the Maceistas] are provoking violence," Sanchez says quietly as he drives, trying to rush despite stoplights and heavy traffic. He has 60 blocks to travel. The phone rings again and Sanchez answers. He pauses. "Hi, my love," he says softly in Spanish. "How are you feeling?" It is Eire calling from the Gonzalez house. He insists she stay away from the pro-Castro protest. "I don't want you to go over there," he admonishes. "It could make matters worse." He hangs up and manages to steer, hold his cell phone, brake at a red light, shift gears, and pull from his wallet a business card for Miami Assistant City Manager Raul Martinez. He dials the number and leaves a voice mail. "I need to speak with you urgently," he says. "I haven't seen anything yet, and I don't know if it's true, but apparently the Maceistas are demonstrating at Eighth Street and Twentysomething."

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