It Takes a Cuban

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

The culture of fear is the legitimate remnant of the years of terror in Miami in the Seventies, when all the bombing was going on. That is part of our psychic history. It stays with a lot of people, and that is the terrible toll of terrorism. The remnant of the church bombings in the Fifties stays with African Americans.

People still have that ingrained in them, but I think we need to recognize we are in a different place now. We are in a different place in the year 2001 than we were in 1976, when they attempted to assassinate Emilio Milian.

Like FDR said, the thing we have to fear the most is fear itself. What we need to do, all of us, whoever we are, is have a little bit of courage in terms of being free to state our political convictions and what we believe about a particular issue. When we state those things, the consequences aren't generally as bad as we think.

Howard Simon, ACLU state executive director, toasts de Leon for bringing Cubans into the ACLU fold
Steve Satterwhite
Howard Simon, ACLU state executive director, toasts de Leon for bringing Cubans into the ACLU fold
De Leon is close to his family, including his grandparents
Steve Satterwhite
De Leon is close to his family, including his grandparents

Does language seriously divide us in Miami?

There are people who have an interest in making sure one group or another doesn't hear what another group is saying. It is bad enough that we have these cultural differences, but when the language is used as another tool of segregating ourselves as a community, it doesn't make it easier. We are going to have to start understanding one another's points of views.

Can anything be done about stations like Radio Mambí (WAQI-AM 710) that seem to traffic in creating divisions?

Putting my First Amendment hat on, there is something to be said for encouraging people to speak their minds. It is always better to hear what people are saying and thinking rather than trying to repress it.

If what they are saying is reflective of the worst aspects of the community, then isn't it better to know it? I think it is.... A remarkable number of people of all languages listen to radio in this community. I think we just need a new group of people who'll start putting [better] things on the air.

In addition to his ACLU and public defender work, de Leon finds time to volunteer. He is a board member of one of Miami's most successful new civic organizations: the Urban Environment League. The group's aggressive advocacy for public parks and proper planning has landed it and de Leon in the middle of important debates such as the fate of Bicentennial Park.

Where is Miami in its development, and what does it most lack?

I think Miami is going through an organic process. The extent to which it moves forward or backward depends on us. We are helping to define the city. It is very exciting.

The single most critical factor in how we grow is how our city leaders, whether political or civic, see themselves as stewards for future generations. If our decisions continue to be made based on the short term -- for example we are building a stadium for a baseball team that needs a venue for the 2003 season, rather than building it because fifteen years from now it will be the centerpiece of a redevelopment of the area -- then we are doomed.

Developers are short term. They are businessmen. They care about putting money in their pockets now or in the next year. They could care less what happens in ten or fifteen years. Therefore it is a responsibility of our elected officials, and they have the power to act as stewards, to protect not this generation but the next generation and future generations after that. Unfortunately it hasn't historically been the case in this community

What does Miami need to make it a world-class city?

Civic culture. It is lacking individuals who are willing to create civic organizations that are going to last and have an impact. I think that is in part a result of people thinking that they can't make a difference. Because there is no history of civic organizations that had real power in this community. They don't know the power of civic groups.

In Miami in particular, it is amazing what a couple of people can do and what movements people can create in this community. I think individuals are more able to make an impact directly [here] than in any other city.

But this is open for the bad as well as the good. We have a long and colorful history of shysters coming in and spreading a few dollars around and becoming "community leaders," and then all of a sudden they are indicted. That history has been repeated, I think, since the Twenties.

And this will not be a great city until we start dealing with the issues of the divisions among the ethnicities. It is ridiculous that we don't have great public spaces where people get together. In a community that is so divided, our city leaders don't see the necessity. If we are able to create a vibrant and healthy downtown area, I think that will help unite us. People will be able to see each other in a nonconfrontational way.

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