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.

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.

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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