It Takes a Cuban

After a legendary career as president of the Miami ACLU, John de Leon is heading even further south

In 1992, while back in Miami, he decided to join a Columbia-sponsored trip to Cuba. The island had just begun to absorb its body blow from the fall of the Soviet Union. Over a period of eight days, de Leon traveled the length of the country and met with everyone from jailed dissidents to those who'd passed judgment on them.

De Leon knew his journey could come at great personal cost. It was no accident he waited until the day before he left his parents' house to tell his family about it. The experience on the island and what awaited him when he came home would serve as a painful and instructive primer on the issues of free speech in Miami's Cuban community.

After the visit he returned to the public defender's office, where he worked until this past May 25. In 1997 he became president of the ACLU. Next week de Leon will step down from that post and move to Bogotá, Colombia, where a U.S. government-funded job awaits him. He will be part of a team implementing a new constitution for the country, as well as establishing a public-defender system and a constitutional court.

Some of de Leon's satisfied customers: José Basulto, eight of the Killian Nine, and Debbie Ohanian
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Some of de Leon's satisfied customers: José Basulto, eight of the Killian Nine, and Debbie Ohanian
Some of de Leon's satisfied customers: José Basulto, eight of the Killian Nine, and Debbie Ohanian
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Some of de Leon's satisfied customers: José Basulto, eight of the Killian Nine, and Debbie Ohanian

New Times caught up with de Leon in the ACLU's new suite of offices at 4500 Biscayne Blvd., as he was preparing to leave for Latin America. In a conversation over several days and many subjects, the activist and attorney talked frankly about his Cuban identity, police abuse in the inner city, juvenile justice, intolerance, and the future of Miami. Here are some excerpts:

What do you think you inherited from Cuban culture?

I think what being Cuban has added to my identity is a strong sense of roots and a connection to my family. [I have] a real love of the cultural aspects of being Cuban -- like the music and an appreciation of the drama of life. For Cubans everything is drama. It's a very emotional culture. If so-and-so said something in a certain way, [we take it as] a personal affront. There is a wonderful humanity about the [Cubans].

On the other hand, I'm about as much of a hybrid as any member of any first-generation immigrant group [can be.] There are things about American culture that I connect to, that I don't think my parents connect to at all. For example I have more faith in institutions than in personal relationships as a governing force. We as Cubans [tend to] think it is a question of who you know and who can help you out. There is a certain solidarity with your neighbors in Cuban culture that I like, but at the same time, in terms of achieving things professionally, I think the American approach is more of a meritocracy. It's more what you [can] do.

In 1992 you went to Cuba. What was that like, and how did your family respond?

Up to that point in my life, it was probably the most significant decision I'd ever made. I knew it would be devastating to my parents, particularly my mom.

All my life, the mythology of Cuba loomed large in everything. It really brought up a lot of stuff in terms of who I was and my identity. A lot of people go through this when they [return] or go to that country for the first time.

I felt as much connection to those people on the island as I did to any Cuban in Miami. I think it is one family. [We] share the basic human component that unites everybody from that island. And the physical beauty was astounding to me.

Ironically the trip helped me understand why my parents and their generation felt such profound hatred for Castro because they lost or left behind this spectacular jewel. It gave me a keener understanding of the suffering and pain of my parents.

When I came back, I had to leave my house. It was awful. It was a very difficult period in my family. They didn't understand why I went. They thought my going signaled some kind of support for Castro, when my trip had nothing to do with politics. It took months before family members started talking with me. We worked through it, but it was tough.

What were some of your most memorable cases as a public defender?

One of my most memorable cases was a wonderful young man who got himself involved in some sort of operation with his fellow high-schoolers, white middle-class kids allegedly involved in a drug lab that manufactured distilled cocaine for distribution. My kid was lower-middle class and could not afford the high-priced attorneys that the other kids could.

When the evidence came in, there were literally boxes, like moving boxes, full of cocaine. People had to clear the courtroom because the fumes were so strong.

They were allegedly involved in this big operation, yet they were all charged as juveniles. I think it was perfectly appropriate for the state attorney to keep those cases in juvenile court. The kids ended up being productive members of society. Yet I've had African-American kids transferred over to the adult court system for having a rock of cocaine.

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