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In response to Alex Penelas's inflammatory Elian speech, hundreds of citizens labeled him a demagogue, a coward, and a traitor. And those are just the epithets we can print.

It was the shot in the foot heard round the world, and it will be replayed for years to come. There stood Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas at the federal courthouse on March 29, 2000, a day in which the very real threat of civil unrest loomed menacingly. A phalanx of television cameras focused on the mayor as he positioned himself at the center of a large group of civic leaders. Soon his words regarding the volatile Elian Gonzalez case would be broadcast around the globe. Surely this was a stage set for leadership.

A promising young voice in the Democratic Party, Penelas's ambitions for an even greater leadership role have been well-known, and they looked increasingly bright as he deftly built a governing coalition from the county's Hispanic, black, and Anglo communities, and as he nurtured his close ties to presidential hopeful Al Gore.

If ever there were an opportunity to forge an indelible image in the national consciousness, this anxiously awaited press conference in downtown Miami was it. Penelas approached the jumble of microphones and then proceeded to shock and alienate most of the nation with his now infamously defiant speech.

Never have opinions flowed as quickly and freely as they do in this information age. Within hours chat rooms, bulletin boards, and electronic news sites buzzed with commentary in response to the mayor's vow to withhold local police assistance should federal authorities attempt to retrieve Elian and to hold Attorney General Janet Reno and President Clinton responsible should blood flow in the streets of Miami.

The ease of Internet communication allowed people to instantly express their views directly to Penelas at mayor@co.miami-dade.fl.us. As of April 5, Penelas's office had received 1146 messages regarding his speech; a majority of them seem to be locally generated e-mail. A total of 929, more than 80 percent, expressed anger and dismay at his comments, and used words such as shameful, irresponsible, embarrassing, foolish, inflammatory, appalling, unworthy, stupid, arrogant, disgraceful, shocking, cowardly, and dangerous. Roughly 90 percent of the messages appear to have come from non-Hispanics, but a small handful -- fourteen -- pointedly identified themselves as Cuban American.

An examination of the correspondence reveals several recurring themes: that the mayor's statements splintered the uneasy truce existing among ethnic groups in the county; that many felt disenfranchised because Penelas now seemed to represent only Miami-Dade's Cuban community; that he appeared to invite and endorse lawless anarchy; and that he would be held accountable at the polls for his statements.

A strong strain of betrayal runs through the messages, as a substantial number of correspondents had supported Mayor Penelas in the past. A strain of bigotry also was evident, with numerous Anglos demanding that Cubans return to their homeland.

On the positive side, the mayor found a few friends among Clinton-haters who applauded his defiance. Cubans and non-Cubans alike congratulated Penelas for standing up to the twin evils of Castro and Clinton.

In the interest of conveying as broad a sense of the opinions as possible, we have edited most samples below for length and clarity. In addition we have for the most part included only the correspondent's e-mail name.


My urge to flee South Florida grows hourly. Now that I know I have no local protection from lawless zealots, I should run to a federal building and demand asylum from Miami Cubans.

-- DanboII

As a Dade County Commissioner and as a citizen of the U.S. I find it very disturbing that you have given the perception that Miami-Dade County's government would tolerate lawlessness, or be viewed as a place where an entire community would not be protected.

-- Dorrin D. Rolle

I cannot believe that a person of your intelligence and position would have been so irresponsible to encourage "civil unrest." There is a word for people of position who incite the masses to civil unrest. They are called demagogues.

-- BookmateLB

I am finding it harder to bite my tongue and not denounce this area as a lawless country unto its own, even though my past, my heart, and my family all still live here. Every time you make statements like you did yesterday, or we as a county impale ourselves on the cross of Elian or Arthur McDuffie or Los Van Van or any of the others, we slip further and further back away from the places people actually want to live.

-- Rice

Until today I thought you had exercised reasonable restraint in this matter. Today you pandered to the basest instincts of a fanatical mob, and because of your position added fuel to an inferno in a way that few others could have done. As a leader of this community, you owed us better.

-- RLK

The situation in Miami is extremely volatile, and statements like that from our highest-profile politician do nothing but inflame the situation. Instead of imploring the Cuban community to act with dignity and obey the laws of the country they live in, you are fanning the flames of their passion. It's as if you are saying the Cubans would be justified if they do get violent if the feds come to take Elian out of his home.

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