By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
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.
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."
To keep up with the groundswell of discontent among its listenership, Radio Mambí cancels scheduled programs on Saturday afternoon and evening. News about Elian dominates the airwaves. Nevertheless many regulars drop in. Roger Rojas Lavernia, who often is a guest on the Olga and Tony Show, which normally runs from 5:00 to 6:00 p.m., recalls sadly how he helped out in an early political campaign of now-vilified Attorney General Janet Reno. He takes advantage of the moment to read a poem written in Spanish by one of his colleagues at the station about the former Dade State Attorney.
Her visits were frequent
to the offices of Mambí.
I'll never forget her smile,
which was about level with my forehead.
But one unexpected day
Washington called her.
Her Saxon blood boiled
and that good ol' gal
Turned into a soldier.
At 6:35 p.m. state Rep. Manuel Prieguez, whose district includes Little Havana, takes the microphone. "Representing my colleagues [in Tallahassee], I would like to offer these words. We are indignant.... How could this happen in our own back yard? How could they invade us as if we were not part of the United States?"
Declarations of hosts and invited guests alternate with telephone calls from listeners. Desperate rants are peppered with insults. "The United States government is made up of a bunch of hypocrites and liars," one caller says. Another terms the attorney general "Señorita serpiente" (Miss snake). For many others the president is a "Judas" and "a real son of a bitch."
"We must execute Clinton," one man shouts into his phone.
Calls for peace temper the invitations to violence. But in the minds of some angry members of the public, peace amounts to letting other communities do the dirty work. "Let the blacks burn Miami!" a woman yells into the receiver.
Much debate centers around a picture released by the government that shows a smiling Elian in his father's arms. How could Elian be smiling, ask announcers and listeners, when just a few hours earlier he was overcome by terror? Callers point out inconsistencies between the new photo and those taken during the early morning seizure: Someone claims there is a tooth in Elian's mouth where one was missing before; a Band-Aid is gone from his arm; hair suddenly seems to have sprouted on his head. Antonio Llano Montes, a Mambí news commentator, asserts the photo was "manipulated."
Perez-Roura concludes there are two possibilities; either the picture was taken in Cuba before Elian's departure or someone has generated a montage with a computer. After all, Perez-Roura ventures, the U.S. government has the means and propagandist intentions to fabricate such lies. "That is not Elian," Perez-Roura claims. "He doesn't want anything to do with his father, so how is he going to appear in that photo as if nothing happened? Let's not give any credence to this photo. Now it will begin to rain photographs," the station director warns. Referring to the Associated Press shot of the boy and the soldier, he proclaims, "The only [picture] that has any value is the one that is now circulating around the world."
As the streets grow dark around 8:00 p.m., Perez-Roura is joined by his sidekick, columnist and host Agustin Tamargo, and by Capt. Rene Garcia, whose show Points of View has been cancelled. Mayor Joe Carollo returns to the air, his voice worn almost to a whisper.
"Are you worried, mayor," Perez-Roura asks.
"Armando, what I am is tired," he responds. "I'm tired of seeing how a people that is suffering and has been suffering for 41 years keeps suffering."
Carollo recalls the traumatic afternoon he spent decades ago as a six-year-old in Cuba, standing on the front porch with his family in Havana during the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. That event led Carollo's family to send him alone to the United States as part of Operation Pedro Pan. Like Elian, the mayor recalls, he arrived in this country at the age of six. And like Elian he was separated from his family for nearly six months. "I could never do anything, at six years old, to fight for my homeland," he recalls. "That's why, at 45, I've fought so hard for this child and for our people." Carollo then promises to restore what has been lost. And he asserts Elian united the exile community as never before. "Perhaps this was the principle God wanted to use Elian to accomplish," he says.
As Easter Sunday dawns, the sun glints off the asphalt of the deserted parking lot outside Radio Mambí. A two-person cleaning crew works quietly in the lobby. Just before 8:00 a.m., an infomercial boasts of the curative powers of such medicines as uña del gato, cat claw.
In the prerecorded Family Encounter, Father Florentino Azcoita reads a biblical passage from the Book of Isaiah that seemingly describes the coming of Elian to the exile community: "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light," he says slowly. "They that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined." He continues, frequently repeating the words to emphasize their uncanny significance: "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace."
Then Father Azcoita breaks from the biblical text and tries to fit Elian into the role of counselor. "[The boy] did not say many words," he admits, "but in the simplicity of what he said, he has opened new paths for us."
As the Christ child arrived to save humanity, Elian came to rescue the exiles: "A child was born unto us that God wanted to be for [the exile community] what Jesus Christ was for all the world. And this child's name is Elian."
When the program ends, the commercial for cat claw runs again.
Prerecorded shows on health air much of the morning. At 11:00 a.m. Marta Casañas opens her show, Songs of My Land.
Around noon a caller echoes Father Azcoita's messianic message and adds a classical twist. "I won't wish you happy Easter today," he says. "It's a sad day, but it's a sacred day. So first [here is] sacred music for all of us Cubans and for this child." Then, through the receiver of his telephone, he plays Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" from the Messiah.Feedback and static diminish the sound quality. Then the caller launches into a sermon about Elian. "Will he be delivered into the arms of Hell? No! We have to have faith in the sacred purpose for this child.... Oh, the troubles visited upon patriotic Cubans! The forces of evil will not defeat us!" He goes on interminably until Casañas cuts him off for a commercial.
Another man calls in, responding to an earlier suggestion that all the federal agents wore masks during the raid at the Gonzalez house. "We have to keep our facts straight," the man comments. "The only agent with the face covered was the driver. He wore a mask like the communists use."
"Yes," Casañas agrees.
"Now it's clear this man is a Latin," the caller begins.
"The way he positioned his arm [on the car door] when he was backing up proves it. He's Latin and he's very well-known in this community. He had to conceal his identity."
"Yes, obviously," Casañas replies.
"The whole raid was carried out just like a communist operation."
"Now, the photograph of Elian with Juan Miguel is clearly not the same child who was violently seized yesterday."
"You can see it in his eyes. And he's wearing a Batman shirt! Now everyone knows that children wore Batman clothes a few years ago, but not now. These are lies! There's a word for people [who do these manipulative things]. Miserable."
Halfway through her five-hour show, Casañas debuts a new salsa song written and recorded in the previous 24 hours by Elio Rodriguez. It's called "They Took Him Away."
Rodriguez opens with a spoken introduction that condenses the sentiments voiced on Mambí throughout the weekend: "I dedicate this song to the protest against the betrayal committed by a depraved and degenerate president who, in cahoots with the murderer [Castro], negotiated a betrayal of all the principles of liberty and democracy and exercised brutal force against a helpless little angel. Found sleeping in his humble room in Little Havana, [Elian] was violently snatched by the dogs of immigration, who were armed to the teeth."
In this slow salsa number, Rodriguez often stops singing to speak the most poignant verses.
They took our little Elian,
this little son whom God saved for us.
Assaulted his house in the night.
The immigration guerrillas,
like dogs strongly armed,
they assaulted the humble room,
and little Elian was taken from here
by force and without compassion.
And Janet Reno, ha,
with her tremors
and the depraved Clinton, too.
We will collect one day
for this betrayal.
And why don't they use these guns
against the tyrant in Cuba
who has killed so many children
and shot so many patriots?
By 7:00 p.m. Sunday Armando Perez-Roura is worn out. Jesus Garcia steps in to host the show Peña Mambísa (Mambí Forum) with guest Luis Gomez Dominguez, a Cuban writer and attorney who has a theory about the feds' motivation for nabbing Elian.
Dominguez speculates that Clinton and Castro secretly agreed to the following: The Americans will surrender the rafter boy and in exchange, the Cubans will accept repatriation of 2400 felons who have served their sentences but nonetheless are stranded in U.S. prisons because of their immigration status. This exchange would be just the first step. "Clinton wants to lift the embargo," Dominguez proclaims. "It will be a gift from Clinton's government to the Cuban tyrant."
On the street they call him, in Spanish, Chocolate. He doesn't want New Times to use his real name. He is a black Cuban who came to the United States when he was just a baby; he's not sure of the date. Friendly yet excitable, he has a smooth, round, clean-shaven face. His walk is a ghetto strut -- shoulders back, head cocked to the side. A few years ago he belonged to a street gang called the Latin Disciples, but he gave up that life when his mother left the family. He now lives with his father. Two vertical scars, the result of a knife fight, crease his cheek beneath his right eye. A patch of hair is missing from his scalp where someone slashed him with a broken bottle. Police arrested him a couple of years ago when he was driving the getaway car during a purse-snatching, but the charges against him, he explains, were dropped.
Like many other Cuban Americans, Chocolate was present during last Saturday's street protests. He fit the profile of the serious provocateur: a young male with a history of violence and a proclivity for getting rowdy. And had the circumstances been different, had the impetus been something other than a communal cry of anguish and frustration, Chocolate and others like him who roamed the streets that day might indeed have incited a full-scale riot. As it turned out, he was home before midnight, like most everyone else.
Chocolate awakens Saturday morning to the tinny sound of television news. "They're taking Elian," his father says. "They came and they took the boy."
Suddenly the seventeen-year-old Cuban American's life, much of it spent brawling in Little Havana's gritty neighborhoods, has a focus; his restless energy has a purpose. Miami will pay, he thinks, and he'll have fun collecting. As the TV flickers, endlessly replaying the desperate scene of a frightened little boy being whisked from a Little Havana house by a federal agent, Chocolate dons a pair of red basketball shorts and a red basketball tank top carrying the name of Detroit Pistons guard Jerry Stackhouse. Then he drapes around his neck a beaded red, white, and blue necklace with the design of a Cuban flag. "I'm going to [the Gonzalez's] house," he tells his dad.
"Go! Go!" comes the reply.
A few minutes later Chocolatejoins the swelling crowd on NW Second Street. Elderly men in guayaberas shout into bullhorns. Women in black hold signs and scream, " Cobarde!" (coward!). The throng of media, having patiently waited months for a conclusion to this transcaribbean custody battle, eagerly records the minutiae. Chocolatejumps into the air and joins a chant of "libertad."
Soon the crowd swarms around Miami Police Lt. Bill Schwartz, the department's media spokesman, who was being interviewed by Channel 7 (WSVN-TV) in the Gonzalez's front yard. Someone shouts that they are on private property and angrily commands Schwartz and the TV crew to move.
" Asesino!" several people scream. A water bottle is hurled at Schwartz's head but misses. Others push him. Chocolatejoins the crowd while the lieutenant beats a hasty retreat.
" Que pinga la policía!" ("Fucking police!) the youth yells while grabbing his crotch and thrusting his hips. " Que pinga!"
As helmeted officers usher Schwartz into the back of one of several waiting Miami PD patrol cars, Chocolatepushes forward. People bang on the hoods and roofs. A rock arcs overhead and hits one of the vehicles. An old man in a white baseball cap picks up the rock and flings it at the door of another police car.
Chocolatemoves with the crowd down NW 24th Avenue and on to Flagler. Earlier the police closed off much of the neighborhood to traffic; now people march freely down the middle of the street. Although swept up in the sense of outrage, Chocolate doesn't lose sight of the purpose: to express anger, to protest the taking of Elian. "I'm not out to get arrested," he says. "I'm trying to help people."
At Flagler and 27th Avenue, a six-lane intersection, two police cars sit in the middle of the empty street. As the crowd grows, the officers find themselves outnumbered and underequipped so they evacuate, joining a long procession of police cars heading east on Flagler. The crowd takes control of the corner. A man in a white Firebird holds the brake on his car and spins his tires until a thick cloud of acrid, black smoke fills the air. Chocolateroars his approval. Someone starts a small trash fire. A group of men pull over a Dumpster from a nearby Chevron gas station and the conflagration grows. Another blaze begins not far away.
Several minutes later dozens of police officers return in gas masks. They carry Plexiglas shields. "Oh, shit," Chocolate says, a smile of surprise crossing his face. He is at the center of the intersection, taunting the cops who stand in formation firing tear gas. Chocolate is hit by a cloud; his eyes tear and his nose burns. Bleary-eyed, he runs back to the Chevron. Inside the clerk is doing a brisk business in water and beer. On the street outside, firemen attack the smoldering trash heaps. Chocolate buys a gallon jug of water and offers it to fellow protesters. Several people, from elderly men to young women, pour water into their eyes. Chocolate is again smiling.
As the crowd leaves the gas station, the police press Chocolate and others down Flagler with their shields. "Move back! Move back!" they yell. One man carrying a video camera shouts, "Let's go!" and boom, three helmeted cops jump him and pin him to the ground. Boom, more cops attack a news photographer who isn't retreating quickly enough. Chocolate walks backward, keeping himself just out of the officers' reach.
Scowling now, Chocolatehalf skips and half jumps as the police approach. People are picking up rocks and throwing them at the officers. Chocolate rushes to some bushes by a small office building and scrounges in the dirt for a projectile. He trips and an older lady helps him up. Tear-gas canisters sail through the air. The crowd, having earlier learned its lesson, rapidly disperses. An elderly Hispanic woman next to Chocolate is hit with pepper spray, and the young man rushes to her side with his jug. "Gracias, mi hijo," she says tenderly. In her right hand she clutches her purse and a Cuban flag. Her left hand grips a rock.
The protesters, a safe distance from advancing police at Flagler and NW 25th Avenue, turn their attention to an old man with a wooden plank who is smashing up a bus shelter. Chocolate and two others help him by kicking at it. Other men throw newspaper racks into the street and stomp them.
Suddenly the crowd notices a line of ten tow trucks idling in a nearby vacant lot. "Fuck them!" someone yells and throws a rock. As if on command, a volley of rocks flies through the air and the drivers scramble into their vehicles. At least one window is smashed. In a cloud of dust, the trucks zoom off in different directions. That incident alarms the cops. A shiny black Pontiac Grand Prix zooms up and helmeted officers jump out. They chase down a skinny man in shorts and arrest him.
Eventually police are successful in pushing the crowd down side streets. Standoffs continue at SW First Street and 27th Avenue, where several people have lit some automobile tires on fire. But the collective energy seems to have been spent.
By 4:00 p.m. things have quieted down. Chocolate takes advantage of the lull to go home, change, and wait for the cover of night. "Things are definitely going to get crazy," he says eagerly. But he seems confused. He reiterates that he's not trying to hurt anyone, and cloaks his intentions in the familiar refrain of that day: People are just exercising their constitutional right to demonstrate. "We're allowed to do this," he says, adding that the police are the ones provoking the clashes. "Janet Reno and them, they done that kid dirty. And that hurt me; to see that hurt me."
By 7:00 p.m. he's back on the street in gray nylon sweat pants and white T-shirt. He joins a group of teenagers sitting on a wall two blocks from the Gonzalez house. One seventeen-year-old gives only his street name, Mive. A chubby fifteen-year-old in a 2-Pac T-shirt doesn't want to identify himself at all. "Call him Fat Boy," Mive says.
"That was some craziness out there today," Chocolate offers. "Look at his face."
Mive turns his head so his cheek better catches the streetlight's glow. Under his left eye are two scratches. "I was outside the house when they came to get [Elian]," Mive says. "As soon as I saw 'em coming in, I jumped the fence. I got hit in the face with the butt of a gas gun. The cop says to me: 'Motherfucker, you come any closer and I'm gonna kill you.' But as soon as they took him, we started banging with the cops."
"Hell yeah!" Chocolate exclaims.
"Fuck that shit," Mive continues. "City of Miami hauled ass. They were scared of us." Then Mive leans forward conspiratorially. "Tell you what, you stay cool and we'll take you to a place tonight and let you see us really set it off. We all gonna meet at Rey's Pizza at nine."
Chocolate and Fat Boy decide to walk down to Flagler to check things out. The thoroughfare is empty and quiet. Trash is scattered everywhere. Red and blue police lights pulse in the darkness. Chocolate mischievously recalls the earlier confrontation with police and ponders the possibility of a repeat. But when he and Fat Boy make it back to the wall near the Gonzalez home, Fat Boy's mother, a short round woman with cinnamon hair, is waiting for him. "Where you been?" she demands. "I so worried." She beckons and he leaves.
Chocolate heads for Rey's Pizza but only a few people are there. Mive is huddling at a table with some older men. Chocolate sits nearby and says excitedly that he's heard gangs like the Latin Bad Boys and International Posse are going to show up.
Then the men with Mive stand up and depart. Mive himself mounts a skateboard and disappears into the night. Chocolate's gaze follows them, a crestfallen look on his face. "They're going home to watch the news," he says, obviously deflated.
Around 11:00 p.m. Chocolate walks along Flagler, stepping over a toppled street sign and sidewalk graffiti that reads, "Clinton maricón" (Clinton faggot). He bumps into an older couple and chats briefly with them in Spanish. There's a midnight curfew, they tell him. He continues his walk. "It's pitiful, man," he laments. "Everybody's feeling dead. They're all saying they're destroyed and need to go home. I'm sorry to say it but I'm disappointed in my people. We're supposed to keep on destroying, but we let the cops take us over."
Then he turns, slump-shouldered, and heads up a dark empty street toward home.
Two hours after armed soldiers battered down the door of the Gonzalez home in Little Havana, the sun rises on the safe zone of Surfside. Inside the Carousel Barber Shop. an elderly gentleman flips through the latest Playboymagazine, lingering over a list of dirty jokes. A younger customer, still old enough to be a great-grandfather, takes a seat for the first cut of what surely will be a long day.
"I'm ashamed to be an American, I'll tell you that," he says, as the barber wraps a cape around his neck. "This is like Berlin in 1939, the Kristalnacht or whatever you call it. The government storming into a home to steal a six-year-old boy! Well, what can you expect when you have a draft-dodging flag-burner in the White House?"
Thin white hairs are slicked down with bottled water. Scissors slice off little tufts, which flutter to the ground. "Those who don't know their history are doomed to repeat it," he says, launching down a well-worn path. "Go out and stop any car on the street. Take any twenty-year-old from the car. Ask him if he graduated from high school. He'll say yes. Ask if he went to college, he'll say yes. Then ask him who killed Abraham Lincoln. He won't be able to tell you. I'm serious! Six out of ten people won't be able to tell you, or something like that. What happened on December 7, 1941? They don't know. It's despicable!"
The clippers are out now, shearing stubble from the man's neck. "Anyway, I'm disgusted to be an American today. I'd be out there rioting, too, if I were Cuban. Damn right I'd be rioting. Clinton! Reno! Dealing with them is like dealing with Neville Chamberlain. Remember him, holding up that piece of paper? Ha! Ronald Reagan is probably turning over in his grave."
Playboy raises an eyebrow.
"I mean, if he were dead," the man says, correcting himself.
Outside the shop's glass front door, an elderly civil servant scribbles notes on a small yellow legal pad. His polo shirt identifies him as a Surfside zoning-compliance officer. He is frowning.
"Aw, what's he looking at?" asks the barber, peering out the door. "Probably my awning. Look at that awning! I just repainted it except for that one little strip where there's a leak. That's what he's probably writing up."
The barber shuffles back to his post. "The government," he says, shaking his head.
About 11:00 a.m., a block from the Little Havana home where Elian spent 150 days, Antonio Albanes is performing. As street protests explode on nearby Flagler Street, Albanes stands on a platform at the base of an eight-foot-high cross, his arms splayed outward in the style of Christ's crucifixion. He wears a frayed straw hat. Tacked to the wooden crucifix is an upside-down American flag, which presumably signals the disgust Albanes says he feels over the U.S. government's actions. He speaks into a microphone attached to his shirt and hooked up to two speakers mounted on a gray Volkswagen Passat he drove to Miami from his Key Largo home. "I left behind my daughter, my son, my wife to come here," he wails. "I come to give you a message. I am just a simple man." After pausing to take a drink of water, he repeats his lament: "I left my wife...."
"This is nothing compared to L.A.," explains 45-year-old Steven Hollaeaugh. "I was living in Hollywood during the L.A. riots. The difference here is that I'm not afraid for my life." As he talks a cluster of teenagers wearing bandannas over their faces drags a Dumpster 40 feet into the middle of NW Seventeenth Avenue. They flip it over and set fire to the trash that spills out. A bare-chested man with a can of beer in one hand and a Cuban flag in the other stands nearby, loudly egging them on; a swarm of cars and trucks blocking the intersection at Flagler Street honks its approval. Passengers lean out their windows, smiling, screaming, vigorously waving more flags. No police are in sight. The mood is that of a block party.
Before the INS raid, Hollaeaugh (now a Little Havana resident) favored returning Elian to his father. After viewing vivid photos of the troops storming in, however, he changed his mind. For him Waco is no longer a far-fetched comparison, and Attorney General Janet Reno's explanations aren't convincing. "I'm part Indian," Hollaeaugh says, "so I've been lied to so many times by the government I can't believe anything they say."
Ten minutes pass before a fire engine and several police cruisers arrive. As a fireman turns a water hose on the flaming Dumpster, both the crowd and the mass of stopped cars move on. A middle-age man sidles over. "That's my Dumpster out there," he says, shaking his head, then pointing back to his nearby business. "These people are crazy. What are these fires going to help?" Of more immediate concern is who will pay for the damage. "Who's gonna drag it back?" he asks with exasperation. The suggestion that he approach the firemen for some help doesn't go over well. "I ain't saying anything to anybody," he declares. As for the Dumpster: "I'm going to have to go back and read my contract and see who's responsible in case of a riot."
Capitalism thrives amid the tear gas, tire fires, and rock throwing. At a Shell station on NW Seventeenth Avenue and Seventh Street, across from the Orange Bowl, a man who identifies himself only as Vernon unloads a stash of Elian T-shirts and flags left over from the Calle Ocho street festival in March.
He says he sold about 25 of the foot-long flags in fifteen minutes. They went for three dollars each. Many were displayed in car windows. American flags are selling too, but this is no patriotic gesture. An incensed man bought twelve Old Glories and set them ablaze on the sidewalk, Vernon reports. "They're mad," he adds while making change for a twenty-dollar bill. "They're pissed."
T-shirts displaying Elian's face sell for seven dollars. They show the rafter boy in front of the Miami skyline, holding baby Jesus. One man makes a special request. He wants a shirt with a large Cuban flag emblazoned on the front, captioned with the words "PROUD TO BE A CUBAN." On the back would be an upside-down picture of the Stars and Stripes with the words, "I'M ASHAMED TO BE AN AMERICAN."
Despite several cell-phone calls, Vernon, who is dressed in a black, long-sleeve dress shirt and black slacks, is unable to come up with the shirt. "I can't do it today," he laments. "No one can get a batch of white T-shirts. It's a holiday weekend."
Nevertheless sales are brisk. He has earned $3500 in just a few days.
At a Chevron station on Flagler Street and 27th Avenue, Eva Morejon is trying to cash in, too. "They're setting the city on fire because of this injustice," she says, staring westward. She and her business partner, who identifies himself only as Tony, are sitting on a blue Igloo cooler on the shady side of their snack truck. The neatly painted green letters on the small white jeep offer guarapo -- the juice of crushed, raw sugar cane -- but at this moment police have chased away most of their potential customers.
Morejon regards the pile of charred debris in the center of the intersection, then looks further to the west, where alternating plumes of black and white smoke gush from among a thicket of Cuban flags. "Is that just smoke or is that more [tear] gas?" she asks in Spanish. She shakes her head, brown ponytail swinging back and forth. "Muy malo," she declares.
When they stopped their refrescos truck at the Chevron this morning, the pair had no idea they would be setting up shop at the nerve center of the Miami Police Department's riot-control operation. Behind them is a Univision broadcasting truck; diagonally across the intersection, the Walgreens parking lot is filled with TV trucks, mobile transmitters lifted skyward. Cops have sealed off the area so few vehicles pass.
Morejon, a Cuban who came to Miami in 1970, thinks the police are being too rough with protesters, but understands they're just cleaning up a mess left by the federal decision to forcibly remove Elian. "Janet Reno? Es una gay," she says, throwing in some English. "She doesn't have children; how can she understand a family? And Clinton and Castro are husband and wife," she adds. When asked which is the man of the house, she laughs: "Clinton is afraid of Castro. The American government has done nothing to help us."
As they will throughout the day, the street protests ebb and flow. A couple of dozen sweating, tired-looking Miami cops, some holding riot helmets, stream by; not far behind are straggling, flag-bearing demonstrators and reporters. Morejon and Tony spring into action. Morejon serves drinks to protester and press, Anglo, black, and Hispanic alike. Tony feeds the raw cane into the guarapo machine and passes out icy cups of cane juice. Then a reporter asks for a water. "Se acabó," Morejon announces, displaying the empty Igloo. 7UP will have to do.
Some people clearly changed plans in a hurry to attend Saturday's protests. Just before police heave tear-gas grenades on Flagler Street about 1:15 p.m., a bespectacled woman is holding two Cuban flags and a sign as she approaches a line of officers. The front of the placard reads, "Pinko Government must go." In block letters on the back, she advertises "Yard Sale. Everything must go."
During the first half of the Miami Heat's playoff trouncing of the Detroit Pistons at about 1:30 p.m., a time-out is declared. A remote-controlled camera connected to the overhead video screen pans the audience. In section 101 about sixteen rows up from the backboard, three teenagers pull out a Cuban flag. The camera focuses on a kid seated just below them, then swivels its gaze elsewhere. Trying to attract the lens, the teens wave their banner, which is about four feet high by six feet long. Then a police officer with a walkie-talkie shows up. "Follow me," he commands, and the trio troops up the stairs behind the cop. Five minutes later they return, sans Cuban flag. "They can't do that," a bystander complains. "It's a freedom-of-speech issue."
Sunday is much mellower. At 5:30 a.m. at the Branch Miamian compound of the fractured Gonzalez family, exactly one day after the raid, a reporter for News Radio 610 (WIOD-AM) files a live report from an essentially dead street. "There's nothing going on here," he says, throwing coverage back to a studio braced to cover riots. At Ebenezer United Methodist Church in Allapattah, a sunrise Easter service proceeds with only one mention of the child, and then only for comic effect. The Rev. Jimmie Brown, barreling through a sermon titled "Because He Lives," runs down a list of worries that can distract people from the good news that the Lord is alive. "Some of you," he says, wrapping up the list, "might even be worried about Elian." As Brown intended the congregation chuckles. In this neighborhood libertad is no more than an afterthought.
Across town in Coral Gables, Matheson Hammock Park is so full of Sunday picnickers that families laden with blankets and baskets of fried chicken are turned away. On Miami Beach, an island more than geographically removed from the struggle, the sun radiates on the bodies crossing Ocean Drive, headed for the seaside sand. Traffic is the usual gridlock, a slow-moving stream of cars devoid of Cuban flags and yesterday's soapy slogans ("Fuck peace, let's riot!"). Finally a coupe joins the beach parade, a blue-and-red Cuban flag taped to its moving windshield wiper. The driver honks periodically, but it is hard to tell whether he is trying to generate attention or simply attempting to speed up the traffic flow.
Twenty-four hours ago on Flagler Street in Miami, a protester raised a "Free Elian" sign over his head while chanting, "Miami is burning!" By midday Sunday the only burning was that being inflicted by the sun. Miami was merely tanning.
And on Monday, three days after the Elian abduction, the Website of News Radio 610 is a little behind the times: "Attorney General Janet Reno is getting law-enforcement input on how and when to remove six-year-old Elian Gonzalez from his family in Miami. Justice Department spokeswoman Carole Florman says Reno is still open to any proposal for a negotiated transfer of Elian Gonzalez to his father."