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He also was supposed to be busy taking classes in firearm safety and education. If he completes this pretrial regimen, the misdemeanor charge against him for bringing those weapons to the airport will be dropped. But court records show the operators of the program kicked out the educator for cutting class. In fact he didn't show up once. (He was reaccepted into the program in April.)
But six weeks after his arrest, an apocryphal pod of dolphins and an ersatz fisherman delivered unto Perez an instant reputation booster, at least as far as his constituents are concerned. Several political observers interviewed for this story agree: Perez already was almost untouchable in his single-member electoral district. Now, with the image of Elian wearing his Lincoln-Martí uniform emblazoned in the consciousness of voters as they head to the polls, Perez's re-election this fall is a foregone conclusion.
Once he officially becomes a candidate, anyway. At press time neither Perez nor anyone else had registered to run for his District 5 school board seat. The deadline to qualify is July 21.
Another oversight? Overconfidence seems a more likely explanation.
«He's a hell of a politician,» says Armando Gutierrez, who ran a candidate against him for city commission back in 1985. «He'd be very hard to beat, I think.»
When Elian Gonzalez's Miami relatives threw down the gauntlet on December 7, Demetrio Perez was one of the first exile leaders to pick it up and wave it in the face of the federal government. On that day, with help from his great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez and Lazaro's daughter Marisleysis, Elian tentatively announced he wanted to stay in Miami.
Gutierrez, one of Miami's most ruthlessly effective political consultants, quickly mobilized the most powerful forces within the Cuban-American power structure, notably the commentators of Radio Mambí, to exhort their audience to clamor for the boy to remain in Miami. He also brought Demetrio Perez to meet the family. Although the first Herald report of that meeting identified him as "Miami-Dade County School Board member," it soon became clear that Perez's role as a private school entrepreneur was more important -- especially since those private schools were well-known for their politically conservative and explicitly anti-Castro curriculum.
One observer notes this meeting came shortly after the first public indication that the Immigration and Naturalization Service was considering sending Elian back to Cuba. "There were rumors that INS was going to come and get him that day," says one source, who asked not to be identified. "Armando thought that if Elian were in school, they wouldn't take him from the classroom."
Gutierrez says that isn't quite how it happened. Perez was just one of many local politicians who came through the Gonzalez home in those early days, the veteran campaigner says. When the family decided to send Elian to school, they specifically considered Lincoln-Martí, because one of Elian's cousins already attended the school. "When Demetrio offered it to them for free, they decided to take him up on it," Gutierrez recalls.
Having Elian at his schools was a bargain for Perez, at any price. The child could have attended Miami-Dade County Public Schools for free, but that probably wouldn't have made Perez look good to his constituents. By allowing Elian to attend Lincoln-Martí at no cost until age eighteen -- an estimated value of $40,000 -- Perez stood to gain political points for his munificence. The stunning irony: By enrolling a child celebrity in his own private schools, Demetrio Perez increased his chances of being re-elected to his seat on the governing body of the public school system.
"I went on the radio on my talk show and extended an open invitation to Elian to attend the public schools," says fellow board member Manty Sabates Morse. "We have some wonderful public schools, and they're free, and we have teachers who teach in both English and Spanish. But he went on to Lincoln-Martí."
A persistent bugaboo raised by local exile leaders making the case for Elian to remain in Miami has been the assertion that, once the boy is returned to Cuba, he will be subjected to deprogramming. Castro, fearful that the precious seeds of liberty (Disney World, puppies, bunnies, green Lexuses) might take root in this child's heart and spread to other young Cubans yearning to wear gold chains and Power Rangers T-shirts, would force Elian to undergo a rigorous recommunization. Indeed, after his relocation to the Washington, D.C., area, Elian was photographed in the uniform of the Pioneros, Cuba's young-communist league.
One look at the curriculum of Lincoln-Martí Schools might cause many in the United States to wonder if the entire student body of Perez's academies could stand a little deprogramming. "From what I know about the school, it's very ideological," says Max Castro, senior research fellow of the University of Miami's North-South Center and sometime Herald columnist. "It's kind of a counterpart of the old Cuban educational system, which had a pretty strong ideological bent."
One of the pillars of that ideology was written by Perez himself. Titled Citizens Training Handbook, the work is taught to all grades at Lincoln-Martí. Among its lessons: Homosexuality and abortion are wrong, and Richard Nixon was treated unfairly. Also included is a veritable Miss Manners set of instructions on social behavior.