Have Bullhorn, Will Travel

Most anti-Castro groups shun partisan presidential politics, but not Miguel Saavedra and his merry band of protesters

The call came over the airwaves as it had so many times before. On Wednesday, November 22, Radio Mambí (WAQI-AM 710) and La Poderosa (WWFE-AM 670) reverberated with the cries of political advocates, among them U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and state Sen. Mario Diaz-Balart, urging people to descend on the Stephen P. Clark Government Center in downtown Miami.

Enraged Republican operatives imported from dozens of states needed help. The Republicans, mainly congressional staffers, already had filled the county-election department reception area, banging on doors and shouting in protest of a decision to count ballots away from public view. A number of them even had accosted a local Democratic Party stalwart, chasing after him in the false belief he had stolen a ballot.

It was no secret which political party the majority of local Cuban Americans supported. Stung by Elian Gonzalez's violent removal in April, a popular slogan in Little Havana this past summer was "Mr. Clinton, we will remember in November."

Laura Vianello and Miguel Saavedra: Vigilia Mambisa ringleaders
Steve Satterwhite
Laura Vianello and Miguel Saavedra: Vigilia Mambisa ringleaders
Laura Vianello and Miguel Saavedra: Vigilia Mambisa ringleaders
Steve Satterwhite
Laura Vianello and Miguel Saavedra: Vigilia Mambisa ringleaders

But this time few heeded the call. In fact only one anti-Castro exile organization of the scores that operate in South Florida reinforced the Republicans. Vigilia Mambisa mustered about 25 people for a demonstration outside the county hall, where they gamely shouted, "We want Bush! No more Gore!" Leading them in the chants through his bullhorn was Mambisa president Miguel Saavedra. He and some of the others, encouraged by GOP officials, would continue to follow the Republicans throughout the week as the demonstrations moved from Miami-Dade to Broward and then on to Palm Beach.

The Republicans' new friends, however, are viewed with wariness by many of their fellow Cuban exiles. Some disapprove of Mambisa's street-theater tactics, labeling them emotional rather than practical. (Saavedra claims to have he led more than 400 rallies in 21 years.) Other critics allege he and his band are paid provocateurs, a charge Saavedra denies. "[Vigilia Mambisa] is nothing but a group of professional protesters," jeers a prominent exile leader who asked that his name not be used because "I don't want them in front of my house."

Other exile leaders simply think it's bad strategy to overtly commit to one political party over another. Doing so, they say, risks turning their cause of a free Cuba into a purely partisan issue. "It's our belief that for there to be a [Cuba] policy that works, it needs to be bipartisan in nature," explains Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation.

During the election campaign, the influential foundation pointedly refused to endorse either presidential candidate. At the same time, its political action committee and individual members give generously to politicians on both sides of the aisle.

Adds Ramon Saul Sanchez, leader of the Democracy Movement: "We didn't want to interfere in the electoral process. Just because one group decides to [hold] a demonstration doesn't mean they represent the community." Cuban exiles, he says, made their feelings known at the polls: "What we wanted to do, we did -- which was exercise our right to vote while remembering Elian Gonzalez."

Whether the cause be partisan or purely Cuban, Saavedra takes pride in his group's rapid response to calls for demonstrators. "While the other organizations are still meeting about what to do, we are there," he boasts. In the past year, Vigilia Mambisa's scene-stealing bravado has landed Saavedra and his cohorts on CNN, Fox, in the New York Times, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times. Any recent newspaper photograph of angry, screaming Miami Cubans, especially during this year's Elian frenzy, was likely to feature someone from Mambisa. Not bad for an organization that has no regular meetings, no office, and only two officers: Saavedra, who has designated himself "president," and Laura Vianello, who is Mambisa's sole "delegate."

The role of instant agitator is a demanding one. If the 48-year-old Saavedra were not self-employed (he operates an appliance-repair company from his van and apartment in Little Havana), he'd be hard-pressed to quickly drop everything, round up his troops, and hit the sidewalks somewhere in South Florida. He blames the busy life of a militant for the breakup of his 24-year marriage. Now he often takes his 71-year-old father to demonstrations.

The name Vigilia Mambisa can be translated loosely as "patriotic watch," according to 54-year-old Vianello, who left Cuba when she was 14 years old and now works as a real estate agent. Saavedra founded the organization in 1979. Vianello joined in the late Eighties and recalls it was not very active at the time. That changed in 1994 during the rafter crisis, when Mambisa started taking to the streets more often. A frequent target of their anger has been President Clinton.

Vianello describes the group in paramilitary terms. Each member is identified only by a first name or alias, with Saavedra being the only person who knows everyone. (He claims 460 people participate in Mambisa; no more than a couple of dozen ever seem to show up for any given event.) The individuals are divided into sixteen cells, each with its own leader. When Saavedra and Vianello issue a call to arms, they telephone the sixteen leaders, who then alert those in their cells.

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