Have Bullhorn, Will Travel

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

Mambisa's enrollment, such as it is, swelled after the trauma of Elian, which converted hundreds of Cuban Americans into militant anti-Castro activists. A core group of exiles bonded outside the boy's home during daily vigils, and after the shocking events of April, they simply refused to quit. When "Elian's Guardians," as Vianello calls them, cannot be reached by telephone, Saavedra simply drives to the Little Havana house and loads them into his van.

Mambisa's involvement with the Bush campaign began in late July. For a period of about a month, members regularly stood outside Versailles restaurant every Saturday, registering people to vote and handing out absentee-ballot requests. Saavedra fondly recalls U.S. Rep. Ros-Lehtinen and state Republican Party chairman Al Cardenas stopping by periodically with encouraging words. "It was a community service," says Vianello. "Nobody else was doing that."

Later in the campaign, members of Mambisa worked phone banks for the Republicans, calling radio stations in "spontaneous" plugs for Bush. For this, Saavedra reports, they were paid about $60 per day by the campaign.

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 Saavedra denies the Republicans paid him to bring people to the government center two weeks ago, explaining that he heard about it on the radio and contacted his associates. He does acknowledge, however, that he and the Republican Party jointly obtained from the Miami Police Department a permit to demonstrate outside county hall. On the big day, Wednesday, November 22, two dozen or so Mambisa recruits held forth downstairs by the side of the building. Vianello remained at home, manning the computer, television, and phones. Saavedra put her in touch by cell phone with one of the out-of-state Republican staffers on the scene, who urged the Cubans to bring more people with protest signs. The Republicans wanted Mambisa to find and display the famous pictures of the armed INS agent grabbing Elian.

Upstairs that Wednesday, as the Republicans loudly complained, Saavedra bumped into Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who, in a moment of patriotic zeal, saluted him military-style. Saavedra was impressed. He also was impressed with the out-of-town Republicans he met. "What I liked about the Republicans was that they demanded respect," he says. "They had a way of articulating themselves that was very good."

His knows his involvement with the Bush campaign opens him to criticism from his fellow exiles, who call him an Americanista. "They think they shouldn't involve themselves in politics, but we can't be marginalized," he insists. "We need to pick a party."

As if there were ever any doubt, the GOP was that party. After Wednesday's demonstration Saavedra's new Republican friends urged him to continue working with them by traveling to Broward. So on Friday about 40 Mambisas drove in a caravan to Fort Lauderdale for a demonstration in front of the courthouse. That night on the television news, Democrats accused the Republicans of being outside agitators. In response Republican observers, who were based at the Miami Wyndham Hotel on Biscayne Boulevard, promptly provided members of Mambisa with hats that read, "Mr. Gore, I'm from Florida," and urged them to show their drivers' licenses to the television cameras.

On Saturday Saavedra's people headed back to Broward in a rented bus after a hotel breakfast with the Republican staffers. (He says Mambisa paid for the bus with $700 raised from members.)

The counting had finished by Sunday, but the recriminations continued unabated. Last week U.S. Rep. Bob Menendez flew to Miami for a Spanish-language press conference at which he scornfully compared the government-center demonstrators to the goon squads Fidel Castro uses to maintain control on the island. Representative Diaz-Balart retaliated by denouncing Menendez on Radio Mambí.

Gus Garcia, a Miami-Dade Democratic Party official who is proud of both his vehement anti-Castroism and his partisan credentials, looks at Saavedra and Vigilia Mambisa and sees more than a group of fanatics. He see victims. "They are nothing but a handful of people," he says, "who are being manipulated by the Republican Party."

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