The Autumn of the Matriarch

For decades Estrella Rubio has been a street-level general in el exilio's army. But her style of leadership, along with her health, is now fading fast.

Rubio acknowledges that politics in Cuba were different. Politicians did not depend on campaign contributions and the conflicts this brings, she says. "[In Cuba] only the rich ran for office," she says. "They were landowners and wanted to be senator for the title. They didn't have to steal."

Soon Rubio was aiding a variety of politicians in Miami and Hialeah. She joined the Republican Party, where she continues as a committeewoman to this day.

"She helped me with the old people," recalls former state Sen. Roberto Casas, one of the first Cuban Americans elected to the legislature in the Eighties. He laughs. "Luckily she is my friend. If she doesn't like you, she blasts you."

Rubio already had become a regular on Spanish-language radio, where the talk shows, paid programming, and call-in programs are integral to viejo politics. Today the AM airwaves crackle with the soundtrack of a generation in decline. The stations know their audience and share its concerns. When not banging the war drum as loudly as possible, listeners of Radio Mambí (WAQI-AM 710) and La Poderosa (WWFE-AM 670) are treated to a slew of medical shows that promote clinics and peddle magical elixirs. "Those products that cure everything," jokes Rubio of one prominent host's fare.

Rubio is not kind to many of radio's top personalities. "They are not patriots," she complains. "It is inconvenient to these patriots for Fidel to fall. That will end Radio Mambí! What will they talk about?" Just the same, she still is a frequent guest on the 90-year-old self-styled "General" Manuel Benitez's show, De Frente, on Mambí. Despite his need for a walker, the irascible Benitez, a former police chief for Batista, fights on in a vituperative war of words waged against unknown communist callers. Together the two reminisce about events almost a century old as if they had occurred last week.

City of Miami Commissioner Tomas Regalado, who got his start in radio and continues in the medium to this day, remembers the first time Rubio called his show. It was in the late Sixties, and Rubio had gone with others to protest a Cuban government display at a World Expo in Canada. Somehow the Cubans had involved themselves in a fistfight in the picket line. While it was going on, Rubio called the Regalado show with live reports. "We had a ball," he recounts. "She would create the news and then report it."

He attributes her radio popularity to a commanding voice, a gift of expression, and the knowledge of how to ingratiate herself with the commentators. Her popularity also stemmed from small favors she would do for poor elderly Cubans who made up her fan base. If they needed help with the government, she would bring their requests to her political friends. Some of her achievements included obtaining a kitchen and roof repairs for the low-income apartment complex in which she lived.

"She had name recognition, and more importantly she had voice recognition," notes campaign worker Charlie Safdie. He saw this in action when he made an unsuccessful bid for state representative in 1994. Although his district was in Kendall, far from Rubio's strongholds of Miami and Hialeah, he enlisted her aid. He gave her a list of phone numbers of Hispanic elderly voters in his district. She called them cold. Safdie remembers how surprised and pleased she was that so many recognized her. "These people like Estrella Rubio have a book full of [voters] that they can call," he says. "A lot of them visit elderly voters throughout the year."

He compares the voter advice she gives to newspaper endorsements of candidates. "Are they voting because they are the best candidate, or because they trust these people who give them advice?" he wonders. "I don't know."

Safdie remembers Rubio driving around collecting absentee ballots. Her ability to bring them in would be her downfall. In 1998 she was charged as part of a voting-fraud scandal in the City of Miami. As a favor to a friend, she asserts, Rubio helped Humberto Hernandez's political machine elect Xavier Suarez city mayor.

One day while working in the office, someone whom Rubio cannot remember asked her to sign as a witness to an absentee ballot. Such a signature is a legal oath. But Maria Padron, whom Rubio supposedly witnessed vote, was not in fact present. Padron would later tell investigators that two men representing then-city Commissioner Hernandez had picked up her ballot. That was the last she had seen of it. Padron also told them she had never met Estrella Rubio.

Rubio claims the request for her to sign the ballot was not unprecedented and she didn't give it much thought. "We signed thousands of ballots for [U.S. Rep.] Ileana [Ros-Lehtinen]," she says.

Part of her cannot quite comprehend this incursion of the U.S. legal system into the norms of viejo politics. It seems awful small-time, she says, compared with what truly goes on.

When investigators came to arrest Rubio, she had just been released from the hospital following open-heart surgery. According to a Florida Law Enforcement investigative report, when the police told her why they had come to her apartment, she began to cry and activated her medical alert necklace. A fire-rescue unit arrived to take her to the hospital.

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