What Makes Alvaro Run?

Alvaro Fernandez takes on Bruno Barreiro, his friends, and all their money. Ask him if he's worried.

The history of District 5 encompasses several of Miami's more colorful scandals. For the bulk of the Nineties, its turf was ruled by a well-oiled machine headed by Bruce Kaplan (elected commissioner in 1993 after predecessor Joe Gersten was alleged by police to have smoked crack with a Biscayne Boulevard hooker and re-elected in 1996) and aided by state Sen. Alberto Gutman. Charges of influence peddling and under-the-table deals circled both Kaplan and Gutman, finally coming to a head in 1998.

Kaplan was the first to fall, agreeing to resign from office after being found guilty of mortgage fraud. Gutman quickly moved to pick up the pieces, finding his new man in then-state Rep. Barreiro. (A widely criticized Gutman-brokered deal enabled Barreiro's family-owned Little Havana HMO to go from near-insolvency to a ten-million-dollar sale to the Physician Corporation of America. For his efforts Gutman received $500,000, Barreiro nearly $200,000, and Barreiro's father maintained a fifteen percent stake in the company.)

Whole lotta shakin' goin' on: Cuban exiles protesting Los Van Van's Miami Arena concert last October
Whole lotta shakin' goin' on: Cuban exiles protesting Los Van Van's Miami Arena concert last October
Whole lotta shakin' goin' on: Cuban exiles protesting Los Van Van's Miami Arena concert last October
Whole lotta shakin' goin' on: Cuban exiles protesting Los Van Van's Miami Arena concert last October

In a snap June special election to fill Kaplan's seat, Barreiro garnered only 4,237 votes. Owing to the election's summer timing and its resultant low voter turnout (a situation many believe Gutman's county commission allies were counting on), Barreiro's miniscule tally was still enough for him to win. (In 1998 District 5 had nearly 55,000 registered voters.)

Gutman himself was the next to go, charged with two million dollars in Medicare fraud -- a crime for which he's currently serving time behind bars.

The last man standing, Barreiro clearly seems uncomfortable in the spotlight. His public appearances outside his Little Havana base are few, while his county commission speeches often sound akin to a cell phone that intermittently cuts out: painfully long silences followed by strings of words in search of each other.

In the end though, none of this sordid background may matter. It's the subject of Cuba that likely will become the flash point between Fernandez and Barreiro as the September 5 election nears. Not because it's necessarily relevant to the race (“The county commission is not going to fix the problems in Havana,” Fernandez sighs. “There are other people elected for that.”) but because it's really the only issue that Barreiro can wield effectively.

He certainly isn't going to want to attract attention to his record: As a state representative Barreiro was widely considered something of a joke. As a commissioner that reputation has taken on embarrassing proportions. Last year's county commission debate over awarding a pay-phone contract to either AT&T, which offered Miami-Dade County $50 million, or BellSouth, which bid only $19 million, would seem a no-brainer. Yet there was Barreiro, laboriously stumbling through his speech on behalf of BellSouth. Finally BellSouth lobbyist Chris Korge jumped up to help explain just exactly what Barreiro was saying, adding a fresh twist on the notion of how certain politicians are little more than well-paid mouthpieces for lobbyists.

Nothing papers over corruption like a little Castro-bashing, however, and Barreiro is solidly in line with el exilio -- even if he's not always sure what that line is.

This past February, as the county cited the Cuba ordinance and threatened to rescind a $50,000 grant to the FIU Miami Film Festival if it screened the Cuba/Spain/Sundance Festival coproduction Life Is to Whistle, Barreiro took a moderate view. “Pure cultural exchanges should be permitted between the two communities,” he told the Herald, “as long as it doesn't promote Cuba or the current regime.” Two weeks later he'd flipped over into a hard-line stance, declaring that despite the film's harsh critique of present-day Cuban society and Fidelismo, “they can show it in some other city or state. If it's something that was made with the Cuban government's resources, then that shouldn't be seen here.”

Speaking on the phone with Kulchur last week, Barreiro still didn't seem quite sure where he stood on the matter. “That film is a film that came from a group ...” he trails off. After a long pause, he starts in again: “My understanding ...” Another long pause. “I'd have to look at what I said. That film is sponsored by the government in Cuba. I've heard it's not ...” Pause. “But now ...” An even longer pause. “You'd have to study the positions.”

Kulchur tries pitching a slow one: How would Barreiro feel about Los Van Van returning to Miami for an encore performance? “It would not be personally okay with me, but I have no say in the issue,” he replies, sensing where the conversation is going. “That issue is null because the Supreme Court decided,” he adds with relish, presumably referring to the court's view of Cuba ordinance-type laws as unconstitutional.

So it's okay for both local promoters and Cuban authorities to forsake their post-Elian skittishness and begin booking Cuban bands into Miami clubs again?

“[Cuban] bands don't want to play here,” Barreiro answers flatly.

Excuse me? This summer more Cuban outfits are on tour across the United States than at any other time since 1959, including Barbarito Torres, Omara Portuondo, Chucho Valdés, Bamboleo, Maraca, Cubanismo, and yes, Los Van Van. Yet none are performing in South Florida because they don't want to? “It's cheap in other locations. Here you have a lot of Cuban-American artists and bands that perform on a regular basis,” he explains, “but right now it's a cheap thing where there are no concentrations of Cuban populations. There's a bigger audience somewhere else for them.” So musicians hailing from the island are only popular with audiences deprived of exposure to Cuban-American singers? “They wouldn't get the same turnout here they might get somewhere else, because they don't have [Cubans] in some other locations, that type of music in their community,” he answers.

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