It Takes a Cuban

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

John de Leon is attracted to conflict like an umpire to a baseball game: It's a fair ball as long as everyone plays by the rules of the U.S. Constitution. During the past four years, it often seemed as if no major controversy or protest occurred in Miami-Dade County without his presence. His tireless advocacy raised both the profile of his organization, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the importance of the Bill of Rights to heretofore unknown levels of recognition in South Florida. De Leon's willingness to listen and connect with groups from both ends of the political spectrum taught them to rely on and trust him.

As president of the ACLU's Greater Miami chapter, de Leon often made people angry. Those who mistook his easy demeanor and unpretentiousness for lack of will quickly realized their error. During Hurricane Elian, for example, he managed to infuriate Cuban hard-liners with his assertion of the rights of Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Elian's father; conversely his insistence that the boy's Miami relatives should have their day in court maddened those who would later welcome Janet Reno's raiders.

The 39-year-old attorney possesses a naturally inquisitive mind and an adventurous spirit. Tall, heavyset, and most often conservatively dressed, nothing about his appearance would mark him as an influential person, yet de Leon's pure advocacy has earned him genuine respect in a place that tends to worship more superficial values. His adroit use of the media and seeming ability to attend every meeting in town helped get his message out. At the same time he never let his own personality get in the way. The results changed our community.

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
Acrimonious as it may have been, the Los Van Van concert was a step forward for Miami
Steve Satterwhite
Acrimonious as it may have been, the Los Van Van concert was a step forward for Miami
Acrimonious as it may have been, the Los Van Van concert was a step forward for Miami
Steve Satterwhite
Acrimonious as it may have been, the Los Van Van concert was a step forward for Miami
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
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
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
De Leon is close to his family, including his grandparents
Steve Satterwhite
De Leon is close to his family, including his grandparents

As state ACLU executive director Howard Simon says, "John de Leon gave censorship a bad name in Miami."

A list of de Leon's accomplishments as Miami's most prominent advocate for the Bill of Rights reads like a road map through a morass of bureaucratic arrogance, stupidity, and intolerance. Killian High principal Timothy Dawson oversteps his boundaries and nine students are arrested, strip-searched, and expelled for publishing a pamphlet titled "The First Amendment," which contained racial epithets, vulgar language, and lewd cartoons. De Leon rises to their defense and the charges are dropped. The feds try to stop Democracy Movement leader Ramon Saul Sanchez from staging a hunger strike on the sidewalk in front of downtown's federal building, and the ACLU intervenes in federal court and wins. An overzealous county bureaucrat bans the sale of Cigar Aficionado at Miami International Airport because the magazine features a favorable story about Fidel Castro, and strong ACLU advocacy forces Mayor Alex Penelas to rescind the order.

And de Leon's ACLU wasn't merely concerned with First Amendment issues. Just as he fought for free speech, he also devoted considerable energy to defending the Fifth Amendment: "No person shall ... be deprived of life...." The full extent of his work to curb police violence in the inner city might surprise those who only know him for his many interventions on Cuban issues.

De Leon comes from a long line of diplomats and government ministers in Cuba. His parents fled the island in 1959, and his grandmother had to convince Che Guevara to free her son, de Leon's father, jailed by los barbudos in the early days of the revolution. John is the youngest of three children, and the only one born in the United States, arriving on Valentine's Day 1962. De Leon's parents settled the family in Keystone Point in North Miami, purchasing a house on a canal where they still live. Although de Leon grew up geographically removed from the Cubans of Little Havana, exile issues were always present in the house.

He credits his parents and his Catholic-school education with setting much of his moral agenda, but when he was a teenager, several of Miami's civil-rights milestones made an impact, too. De Leon remembers the attempted murder by car bomb of radio commentator Emilio Milian in 1976. (Milian, an advocate for free speech, lost both his legs in the parking lot of a radio station. Many believe his tolerance of divergent viewpoints was to blame.) As a teenager he attended Archbishop Curley High School on the edge of Liberty City, where his senior year coincided with the McDuffie riots of 1980. After a jury acquitted police officers charged with the beating death of black insurance salesman Arthur McDuffie, the area around the school became ground zero for the riots, which lasted several days. For the first time de Leon truly became aware of the problems of the inner city after years of living beside them.

After graduating from the University of Miami, de Leon enrolled in Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C. There he interned at the D.C. Public Defender's Office as part of a criminal-justice clinic. He loved going into the jails and helping those in need. Upon his return home, he had an unhappy yearlong stint practicing business law before joining the Dade County Public Defender's Office in 1987.

Shortly after taking that job, de Leon began questioning his part in what he viewed as treadmill justice. His caseload grew to about 140 first- or second-degree felony cases, mainly involving drugs, rape, or armed robbery, and each punishable by up to 15 to 30 years in prison. Thrust into a different trial every three weeks, de Leon began to feel he wasn't serving his clients. He quit after two years and enrolled in a master's program at Columbia University's School of International Affairs.

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.

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.

It brought home several things: the disparity between justice for African Americans and whites, that kids who are involved in this stuff at the age of fifteen or sixteen don't have an understanding of the full moral repercussions of their actions, and that they can be rehabilitated.

In another case that really stands out, I had a fourteen-year-old African-American male charged with burglary. [He] had absolutely no familial or structural support in his life. The judge said, "Listen, there ain't nothing out there for this kid, so for the safety of the community, let's ship him off to adult court."

Based on our experience, we knew nothing but bad could come [from] sending a fourteen-year-old kid with no family support to jail. His only coping mechanism was going to be dealing with adult criminals. He'd have no support when he got out. He ended up being involved in the attempted murder of somebody by the age of sixteen. We created a crime. We created circumstances that led to further victimization in our community.


John de Leon says two of his most memorable cases while at the ACLU were his advocacy on behalf of nine students from Killian High School, arrested and suspended for publishing a satirical pamphlet; and opposition to the so-called Cuba ordinance passed by the county commission to cut off public funds for groups with ties to Cuba and prevent the island's artists from performing in public facilities.

Why those two?

Killian because it was a precursor to a lot of stuff that is happening in terms of the rights of students. Given the zero tolerance after Columbine, these are issues we will have to deal with around the state. I think Killian is critical, because the way we train students in what their rights are translates into how they're going to impose those rights when they become leaders and full citizens.

When totalitarian tactics [like the strip searches of the Killian Nine] are used against students and are met with approval by other students and authority figures, people think those tactics are okay. That's going to translate into how our country will be run. When people come into schools with those [metal detector] wands and tell kids to line up against the wall and it's okay; when they make kids go through metal detectors to their classrooms; when they write things, are arrested for it, and the courts say it's okay, you are getting on to a very dangerous slope. So yes, Killian was important.

The Cuba ordinance, I think, is a milestone. Four or five years ago people were calling me up, afraid to say publicly the Cuban ordinance needed to be repealed. It was really offensive to me to live in this community and think that people thought they would lose their funding because they [took a position like that]. It was a case that finally [stopped] our government from picking and choosing who could perform in public. The folks who had the courage to take a position on that issue all feel good about having done so.

But what is wrong with politicians deciding how tax dollars should be spent in public facilities?

Ultimately government is the will of the majority. The government should not dictate who I see, or what you see, or what anyone else sees or hears in a democracy! The moment that happens, there is a tyranny of the majority. People need to understand that. [Examples] of that are people being afraid to speak or communicate publicly about issues they hold strong opinions on. When someone calls me in the United States of America in the year 1998, and says they are afraid for their livelihood if they say something they'd be free to express in any other community in America, it's frightening. Those are the consequences of shutting down free speech. It goes way beyond Los Van Van or Manolin playing some concert.

Under your direction the ACLU has built a real presence in the inner city, including a recently opened resource center at 4055 NW Seventeenth Ave., in the Brothers of the Same Mind building. What is the role of the organization regarding issues of race and politics?

I think the establishment is clearly trying to criminalize African Americans. If not intentionally, they are de facto trying to do that. They want to disenfranchise as many people as possible. We have these awful anti-democratic laws that call for individuals who have pleaded to some sort of felony and have completed their time from ever voting again or participating in democracy. These laws disproportionately affect African Americans in Florida. There are [hundreds of thousands] of people who can't vote anymore.... Given the results of the last election, when 500 votes made the difference, [several hundred thousand] votes certainly makes a difference. And believe me, the Republican legislators know which votes they are deliberately [discounting] in future elections through disenfranchising people.

There are issues of racial profiling, which have always been here but have come to light now, involving not only motorist stops but stopping people for "shopping while black," as they say; "walking while black" in their neighborhoods; "breathing while black" -- in essence being black in America. The ACLU is an organization dedicated to preventing this sort of abuse.


John de Leon has been a regular presence at angry meetings about police killings of young black men. Most recently he mourned Nick Singleton, an unarmed Overtown teenager gunned down by Miami police this past May 5 as he ran from a jeep he was suspected of stealing.

Has policing in the inner city improved since McDuffie? What still needs to be done?

I think the fact that the composition of the police department is more reflective of the makeup of this community has helped tremendously. Cops aren't seen as much as an occupying force. Whether they are or they aren't is another issue. I thought the reaction of the police chief [Raul Martinez], in terms of trying to get the community together, was a good sign, and they are reacting a little bit better. All those things are favorable.

There is no mistaking, though, that we haven't done anything institutionally since McDuffie except to change the makeup of the police department. In twenty years they haven't done anything to improve mechanisms by which African Americans and other minorities will feel they can have an impact on abusive police. Twenty years ago the communists were still in power in the Soviet Union, the Berlin Wall was still up, South Africa was ruled by a white minority group.... And we haven't been able to institute any kind of civilian review or citizens investigative panel with subpoena power and oversight? It's pathetic.

My philosophy is that this country has gone through more than 200 years and world wars where people have died because they didn't want the arbitrary use of police power by the government. They died so that the police would not engage in violations of civil rights. They did not die because they wanted to lower crime rates in the inner city. That needs to be ingrained in each of these police officers. Ultimately in this democracy if we can't dictate the terms of accountability for police who kill members of our community, then we are on our way to a police state.

What about the argument that strong policing is necessary to rein in crime in the inner city?

It's in the fight against some perceived evil where we most often end up giving up some of our rights. Say it is a sexual predator we are afraid of, and we [order] indefinite detention despite no finding that [he or she] has committed a violation of the law. Or it's the war on drugs, where our inner cities are being decimated by evil drug dealers, and [we agree to violate] some people's rights [with illegal stop-and-frisk laws] in order to save others. It's that whole notion of "Let's burn the village in order to save it."

Would you be saying that if the sexual predator lived next door?

The purpose of the Bill of Rights is to act as a buffer against [the] vigilantism that results when there is a criminal act done against someone in the community we care about. Of course if it were my family member victimized by some sexual predator, I'd want that person identified or detained. But believe me, the moment you take away the rights of that drug dealer or that predator, it's not going to stop with them. Ultimately it will have an impact on you.

Other than through lawsuits, how does the ACLU protect First Amendment rights of free speech?

There is nothing like listening to people and trying to understand where they are coming from. To the extent that we can foster safe places where people can feel comfortable that [their] ideas can be discussed without [risking] violence, that's one role the ACLU can play. The First Amendment is not there to protect polite speech. It is there to protect real raw speech that comes from people's personal experiences.

The Los Van Van concert [in October 1999 Cuba's premier timba dance band, closely identified with the Castro regime, played an unprecedented concert in Miami] was a great example. It took a lot of doing to make sure the event went forward. The ACLU promoted the freedom of someone like [concert organizer] Debbie Ohanian to do her concert at the Miami Arena and also supported the protesters outside to be able to demonstrate. That was a good example, as unpleasant as it appeared to everybody, of the First Amendment in action.

I thought it was a good thing in terms of the growth of the community.

Has Miami grown more tolerant then?

I think we're in a dramatically different place in terms of the consequences that are taken against people who take positions that aren't popular. Given that the worst-case scenario was what was going on 25 years ago, when people were being killed, it could only improve. I don't think there is a real credible threat of physical harm anymore.

But are people potentially going to lose jobs or business because they take certain positions? I think that is still there. We saw that as a result of Elian Gonzalez. People were treated differently by their co-workers as a result of the positions they took. If we are going to live in a democracy, there are going to be consequences for the position you take, which can include personal relationships breaking up.... Nothing will ever change that. We have a Bill of Rights [to prevent] the government from imposing certain viewpoints on people.

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.

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.

You are about to move to one of the most dangerous nations in Latin America. Why?

This is going to be a learning experience for me as well as an opportunity to contribute. Colombia is in the middle of a civil war. In most other conflicts that I know of, people or countries reach a point of exhaustion and bankruptcy. This conflict is being subsidized by narcos, and the money is not going to end. [Also], you have the inequities found in any society in terms of problems of poverty and social injustice. [Colombians] have to confront those issues while being in the middle of a civil war.

I happen to think Colombians are correct in making the decision to provide justice to people, not having people languish in jails that are [below] international standards, and instituting innovations like alternative dispute resolution, and providing people with [the means to sue] the government for violations of constitutional rights.

I think that anything that can be done institutionally to ... undermine the factions that are trying to [destabilize] democracy [is hopeful.]

If Colombia is able to somehow deal with the problems it is going through, I think it can serve as a model for what can happen in other countries in Latin America, given the same pressures.

In a way the ACLU has a similar role, doesn't it?

I think so. The ACLU is probably one of the most conservative organizations in this country. When you empower people who are powerless, it only leads to a greater feeling of the legitimacy of the system.

What do you think will be your legacy from your tenure at the ACLU?

I think there has been a monolithic view by too many about what it means to be Cuban or Cuban American. Even a lot of the people who are conservative on the Castro issue or the Cuba issue unfortunately have been wrongly painted as individuals who don't understand what it means to live free and support freedom. To the extent that I have helped others understand that Cubans care about these issues whatever their political views, I hope it's given a greater insight about what it means to be Cuban American.

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