Whose Casa Is His CASA?

Colombia's immigrant population is finally seeking a political power base in Miami-Dade

On the main stage of the Colombian Independence Day Festival last month at Tamiami Park, Juan Carlos Zapata mouthed the words to the Andean country's national anthem. Then he followed with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” With his hand over his heart, the trim, fresh-faced 33-year-old looked like an earnest schoolboy -- neatly cropped hair, crisp blue polo shirt, and sharply creased khaki pants. Beside him were Hernando Torres, the Colombian vice consul; Henry Givens, a member of the Miami-Dade Community Relations Board; and Florida Rep. Rudy Garcia. As each man made a short statement, Zapata kept looking over his shoulder. Perhaps county commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla or U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart would show up, too, he thought.

Visiting politicians are no strangers to the ten-year-old festival, Miami-Dade's largest annual gathering of Colombians. But new this year, scattered among the ads for phone cards and package delivery services, were flyers touting Colombian-American candidates for political office. Zapata is competing against compatriot José Luis Castillo and three Cuban-American hopefuls for the District 11 seat vacated by Diaz de la Portilla, who is running for mayor. Although the odds are stacked against the Colombianos, their candidacies show both the growing efforts by their community to win local political power and the obstacles that stand in the way. Because he has held political office (as president of the local community council) and he has long organized aid efforts for Colombians, Zapata has a real shot at victory.

It is only 4:00 p.m. and traffic is backed up from the park entrance at Coral Way and SW 97th Avenue east to SW 60th Avenue and north to SW Eighth Street. By 8:00 p.m. there is no more soda or lemonade at the concession stands; it has been swilled by the record crowds who snapped up the 30,000 preprinted tickets and forced ticket-sellers to handwrite 15,000 more. “This has to do with the situation in Colombia,” Zapata says gravely. In the past two years, the number of Colombians fleeing to South Florida has increased dramatically as the civil strife that has wracked that nation for the past half-century has escalated. The founder and president of CASA (the Colombian American Service Association), Zapata has lobbied for support for Colombian refugee families at the local, state, and national levels.

Zapata in the middle: The commission hopeful between Colombian vice consul Hernando Torres and state Rep. Rudy Garcia
Steve Satterwhite
Zapata in the middle: The commission hopeful between Colombian vice consul Hernando Torres and state Rep. Rudy Garcia

Tamiami Park is not far from the street where Zapata's family moved after immigrating in the late 1970s. Back then he lived on the edge of wild terrain where he rode a three-wheel motorbike. “Who could have imagined that one day it would all be houses?” he asks. In sharp contrast to the sudden arrival of hundreds of thousands of Cubans on the Mariel boatlift and Haitians fleeing the repressive regime of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, Colombian immigration has occurred gradually. It began in the early 1970s. The largest numbers settled in what would become District 11, a chunk of land covering Westchester, Sweetwater, and the ever-expanding frontiers of Kendall.

A 1995 University of Miami study based on 1990 census data shows roughly 25 percent of Miami-Dade's Colombian population is concentrated in District 11. Estimates of the number of Colombians currently residing throughout the county range from planner Oliver Kerr's estimate of 75,000 to CASA's guess of about 200,000. Thomas Boswell, a demographer at the University of Miami, puts the figure at roughly 100,000 but admits that's a stab in the dark. “I don't know much about [Colombians],” Boswell concedes. “That's kind of a lost group in Miami, and they're a significant group.”

A federal law passed in 1995 that prohibits identification of registered voters by national origin makes an assessment of Colombian-American voting power even murkier. In District 11, according to David Leahy, county supervisor of elections, there are about 77,000 voters -- 50,779 Hispanic, 20,515 white, 2,429 black, and 2,966 other -- but there is no breakdown by national origin. Given the large and diverse South and Central American population of the district, Cuban-American voters are likely not the majority but rather the largest among many ethnic groups.

Robert Curbelo, Zapata's Cuban-American rival for the commission seat and his long-time friend, has come up with his own quirky calculations for the district's registered voters. Curbelo's numbers home in on Mexicans (16) and Jamaicans (249), while fudging registered Colombian-American voters at anywhere from 2000 to 6000. Despite his calculations on the demographic breakdown of the district, Curbelo claims to be uninterested in ethnicity. “If I were,” jokes the lawyer known for his work on behalf of Elian Gonzalez's Little Havana relatives, “I would move to another district.”

Taking the matter more seriously, another Cuban-American political observer, who wishes to remain anonymous, maintains, “If there's a place where a Colombian can win, it's District 11.” Political consultant Rick Katz, however, cautions against any candidate running specifically as a Colombian. “You can't try to organize your ethnic group to vote for you and not expect other groups to vote for their own,” he argues. “There just aren't enough Colombians in any one district to elect their own candidates.” Well aware of the arithmetic, Zapata declares bluntly: “I'm not a person who wraps himself up in a flag.”

An ambitious young man, Zapata joined the City of Miami Youth Advisory Council at age nineteen, coached youth soccer for fourteen years, and helped establish the West Kendall YMCA. He worked on the local and state campaigns of a number of Hispanic Republicans. In 1993 he even convinced his parents to provide a rental house as headquarters for Miguel Diaz de la Portilla's county commission run. Inspired by the success of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), Zapata established CASA in 1994 to provide a broad range of services to Colombian Americans.

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.”

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