Elian Nation

Scenes from a splintered city

Radio Mambí

A few hours after federal agents removed six-year-old Elian Gonzalez from the home of his great-uncle Lazaro, the graying warriors of el exilio begin filing into the Miami studios of Radio Mambí (WAQI-AM 710). One of the most popular talk-radio stations in South Florida, Mambí largely caters to an audience of fervent exiles eager to support politicians who can prove their anti-Castro mettle on the air. At the moment of perhaps the greatest Cuban-exile crisis since the 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle, station director Armando Perez-Roura's soundproof booth is transformed into a bunker where strategies are planned, villains decried, and heroes exalted.

Steve Satterwhite

Throughout Saturday and Sunday disappointment in the U.S. government's betrayal booms across the airwaves. Mayors, county commissioners, and state representatives trek to the cement-block building on Coral Way to voice their outrage. Ordinary listeners call in to express concern for a little boy who symbolizes both their suffering and their hopes for salvation.

By 1:00 p.m. Saturday a coalition of eighteen exile organizations, including the Cuban Municipalities in Exile, Brothers to the Rescue, and the Cuban American National Foundation, has crafted a letter, more than 600 words long, condemning the federal government's actions. In a recording replayed periodically during the next 48 hours, Perez-Roura's rich basso delivers the harangue with restrained urgency. Juan Miguel Gonzalez is first "the messenger of Castro" and only secondarily the "biological father" of Elian, he intones. The boy's second cousin, Marisleysis Gonzalez, is his "spiritual mother." The federal agents who seized Elian are "assault troops, reminiscent of the Gestapo" who "brutally penetrated" the room where Marisleysis and Elian slept, turning on the Gonzalez family "terrifying weapons used in attacks against narcotraffickers." The Associated Press photograph of an immigration officer wielding a gun while Elian cowers in the arms of a family friend displays a "savage act, without parallel in the history of the United States, an act that violates the most cherished civil traditions of this great nation."

After calling for a general strike and a peaceful march, Perez-Roura closes by seemingly distancing the exile community from the laws of the United States and invoking a utopian principle: "This is the ... inviolable line of this Cuban-exile community, an exile community that does not recognize any law other than justice nor any flag other than that of liberty."

Shortly after 1:00 p.m. Miami-Dade County Commissioner Javier Souto, a stalwart of the old guard and friend to the viejito, takes to Mambí to criticize Miami city police, claiming officers have abused citizens during the street disturbances. They need to be reined in, he asserts. What seems to anger the commissioner most is the treatment he received while walking on Flagler Street near 25th Avenue. When stopped by a cop, Souto claims, he identified himself and asked to inspect the area. The officer allegedly responded, "I don't care who you are. Leave or you are going to jail."

"I am a commissioner," Souto insists to the Mambí listeners. "You have to respect me."

When Souto exits about an hour later, he encounters Miami Mayor Joe Carollo, who is accompanied by several bodyguards. A crowd of about 25 people is milling outside. Having heard Souto's tirade about out-of-control Miami police, Carollo shouts at the commissioner: "Hey! What are you saying about me?" Souto responds by relating his encounter with the police. The mayor trembles with rage, then tells the commissioner to stay out of city affairs. After a few tense moments, Souto walks to his car and the mayor heads for the studio. (Carollo did not return a call seeking comment.)

As Carollo approaches the glass double-doors that lead into Mambí's foyer, he is ambushed by shouts of "Coward! Coward!" by Eladio Armesto, Jr., the mayor's opponent in a 1996 election and publisher of an exile newspaper called El Nuevo Patria. Brushing past Armesto into the lobby, Carollo insists to supporters that Armesto is a tool of city Commissioner Tomas Regalado, a political foe and radio commentator. His jaw clenched in anger, the mayor hisses, "That sack of shit was sent by Regalado."

Inside the studio a female supporter approaches the mayor, who stands beneath a television monitor that is flashing images of rioters burning Dumpsters. Taking Carollo's hand, she reassures him: "We love you." Then station staff hustles Carollo and his entourage upstairs for an interview on WQBA-AM (1140), a less powerful emisora owned by the same company as Mambí. In this diatribe the mayor fumes, "There is not enough room in Hell for the people who gave the order [to take Elian]."

Back downstairs county Commissioner Miriam Alonso is ranting so loudly she can be heard through the broadcast booth's thick glass. Her face mottled purple, her fingers stabbing the air for emphasis, she screams into the microphone: "With everything that has happened, I don't want to live in this country anymore."

At 5:00 p.m. Gonzalez family spokesman (and well-known political consultant) Armando Gutierrez calls in while driving to the airport. He plans to catch a plane within the hour to follow Marisleysis and Lazaro Gonzalez in their pursuit of Elian to Washington, D.C. Like most of his on-air compatriots, Gutierrez urges Miamians to remain calm. He also stresses "we must punish the people who are responsible for the kidnapping."

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