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In 1996 Zapata beat out four other candidates for a seat on the newly formed Miami-Dade West Kendall Community Council with 40 percent of the vote. He was elected as the council's first president and served from 1996 to 1998. Although unopposed at the end of his two-year term, Zapata says he did not run again because he believed the council had no power. “We in the community were supposed to have final say on zoning,” he complains, “but the developers would just get special exceptions from ... the county commission, so what was the point?” (Community council votes can be appealed to the commission.) Curbelo stepped in as community council president, a job he still holds.
Just as Zapata stepped down from the community council in 1998, Andres Pastrana took over the presidency of Colombia. CASA gained new urgency and visibility. In an effort to negotiate peace, Pastrana ceded a portion of Colombian territory to FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the nation's largest Marxist guerrilla group. Suddenly the chaotic conflict between the army, Marxist insurgents, right-wing paramilitaries, drug traffickers, and common thugs could be summed up in a formula familiar to South Florida: The president is pandering to communists! As the violence escalated, a new flood of immigrants arrived in Miami-Dade, desperate for help. Zapata got a crash course in politicking.
In a whirlwind two years, the scrappy activist won and lost his share of battles. In 1999 the county commission rejected a proposal to allocate $150,000 for CASA to assist Colombian refugees. A bitter fracas ensued on Radio Caracol (WSUA-AM 1260), the Colombian-owned station that shares first place in the Spanish-language ratings with the powerful Cuban exile Radio Mambí (WAQI-AM 710), leading to a compromise in which $200,000 was dedicated to Colombian refugees through a county agency. In 1999 CASA won a $100,000 contract from the state to assist 1500 refugee families. Although Zapata claims the association served 7000 families, Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed a follow-up appropriation this year.
On July 20, 1999, CASA organized a demonstration demanding Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for new Colombian immigrants. It attracted 3000 protesters to the Claude Pepper Federal Building in Miami and a couple of hundred more to related demonstrations in Houston, Chicago, and Detroit. The demonstrations garnered media attention for CASA's appeal. Zapata gained an ally in Lincoln Diaz-Balart and, with the help of a Washington lobbyist, secured the signatures of 44 U.S. representatives in a letter supporting the TPS request. Zapata believes partisan politics ultimately weakened the initiative. A decision on TPS is pending with the Justice Department.
His efforts on behalf of CASA have earned Zapata considerable recognition, moving one Cuban American familiar with the organization to worry: “He may be exploiting the suffering of Colombians for his own political gain -- just as we've seen some Cubans do millions of times.”
Indeed others express related suspicions. Alonso Rhenals, president of the Colombian-American Democratic Council, is more concerned about Zapata's political affiliations. “[Zapata] is a Republican, and he has said publicly that his model for activism is the CANF,” argues Rhenals. “A lot of people think that is an exclusionary model. And he has an almost unconditional alliance to Lincoln Diaz-Balart.” Zapata characterizes the alliance as “a good working relationship,” adding “We have to recognize that Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen have done more for Colombians than anyone else in the past year.”
Within the Colombian-American community, Democrats and Republicans stand in for Colombia's two ruling parties: the Liberals and the Conservatives. Zapata believes these imported political divisions are what drive his critics. “Some people say that everything I do, I do to get votes,” Zapata scoffs. “The thing is, the people I help can't even vote.”