The Sanchez Solution

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

Martinez calls back in about five minutes and says he'll relay the message to Police Chief William O'Brien. They hang up. "This is a serious problem," Sanchez says. "A demonstration at night. How strange. It seems like a provocation."

In a few more minutes, the traffic has thinned out and the Sidekick finally enters the protest vicinity. Sanchez decelerates. The streets are all but deserted. As he passes SW 27th Avenue, the phone rings again. It is O'Brien. "Yes, sir. I'm in the general area right now, but I don't see anything," Sanchez tells him, looking left and right as he crosses 22nd Avenue, then 20th. "I'm cruising down Eighth Street right now but I don't see anything. To [demonstrate] like that right now would be crazy." He pauses to listen to O'Brien, then continues: "Yes, they also have the right [to protest] but I was afraid the way spirits are right now, I wanted to make sure [there was no violence]." He thanks O'Brien and hangs up.

Sanchez places another call as he takes a left on to SW Seventeenth Avenue and then another left on to SW Seventh Street, heading toward Elian's house. He's trying to track down the source of the false rumor. "Who [reported the protest]?" he demands. "Jorge Gonzalez?" Gonzalez is coordinator of a small exile group, Movimiento para la Dignidad del Pueblo Cubano (Movement for the Dignity of the Cuban People). This group is one of the most vocal at the vigil outside the Gonzalez home.

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

As Sanchez turns north on to SW 22nd Avenue, Rojas recalls a rumor that someone phoned in to Democracia headquarters one day earlier: Fidel Castro was so sick that doctors and nurses were flying in from outside Cuba. The pair speculates pro-Castro operatives could be circulating the rumors to create unrest.

The phantom-protest incident illustrates the extent to which Sanchez has drawn city officials into the drama around Elian Gonzalez. "Like a number of leaders, he has the potential to defuse or accelerate a situation," observes O'Brien. "That's why it's important to have a good working relationship.... I've known Sanchez for several years. He's a good man."

April 3, 6:00 p.m. On this night U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Miami Mayor Joe Carollo, Lazaro Gonzalez, a Catholic priest, and Miguel Saavedra, the bombastic leader of the Vigilia Mambisa exile group, will speak in Elianville. But Sanchez will carry the evening.

While Saavedra rants into a microphone connected to a speaker that transforms his words into a deafening and distorted barrage of syllables, several people stretch out an eight-by-fifteen-foot Cuban flag, as if waiting to catch someone falling from above. Saavedra announces plans for a protest later in the week outside Janet Reno's Kendall home. Then he begins to chant -- " Zero votos democratas! Zero votos democratas! Zero votos democratas! ("No Democratic votes!") -- and several dozen demonstrators join in.

Sanchez keeps his distance from the mob. This evening he spends mostly inside the cordoned area in front of the Gonzalez home talking on his cell phone to journalists and Democracia members and chatting with several men who are wearing blue Cuban American National Foundation caps. "Things are a little tense," he says. At about 6:30 p.m., he retreats to his Sidekick for some silence to conduct an interview with La Poderosa (WWFE-AM 670).

Just after nightfall Sanchez approaches the crowd. A barricade separates him from the frontline. After talking casually with a few of the of demonstrators, he swings one leg over the rounded metal barricade, straddling it like a horse. Saavedra is leading another chant, " Libertad! Libertad! Libertad!" but soon his speaker falls silent. Sanchez looks out over a crowd of about 200 people. Someone holds a sign that reads, in Spanish, "Clinton, Gore, and Reno are Communists. No to the Democratic Party." Another sign bears the visage of Janet Reno with a Hitleresque mustache. Others proclaim: "End the Cuban Holocaust" and "Clinton-Gore-Reno, you are guilty of treason. You are nothing but Castro's puppets. You all go to Hell." What is Sanchez going to say to people who are prone to such hyperbole?

"We need the protest to be energetic," he commands in Spanish. "It is critical, very, very critical, that everyone who can stay here all night do it. It's critical. And tomorrow come early in the morning. Please ask for the day off. It's critical that we remain here today, tonight, and tomorrow." He then shifts gears and launches into spirited oratory.

"The moment of truth has arrived," he exclaims, speaking louder. "Listen well. We have never failed and we are never going to fail. We are always going to be with you. And we are going to be forming [human] chains when we have to and going to jail when we have to. It is very important to know where we are going and that we have a direction. This is not chaos or a riot. This is about the dignity of a people who have decided that the civil rights of its children are respected, and who are tired of 41 years of oppression."

Then he adds: "But anyone who raises a stone or a fist in hatred is raising them against [Elian]." He continues for another ten minutes, fueling the crowd's desire to prevent the INS from removing Elian, then demanding that people not act violently. "There is nothing uglier than a riot," he tells them.

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