How to Organize a Peace Protest in Little Havana

First, get unified; next, give out food

Maybe it's his youthful exuberance. Maybe it's his sharp, lawyerly style, or his devilish good looks. Maybe it's his naiveté, which seeps through like the sweat under his freshly pressed olive shirt. Maybe people forgive him because he's half Peruvian and half German and speaks Spanish with a slightly flat German tone. Whatever the case, Rafael Velasquez is making his way through enemy territory, intact and unscathed: "All these people are Bushistas," the 29-year-old Democrat tells me as he confidently strides toward another one-story house to do what few have the guts to do -- campaign in Little Havana against President Bush's warmongering in Iraq.

"Buenas tardes," he yells, through a barred window over the din of a television blaring in Spanish.

"Quién?" comes a voice from an elderly woman in the house.

Rafael Velasquez (right) cozies up to the newest antiwar protesters, the Cubans, with the help of Rafael Dominguez (center)
Steve Satterwhite
Rafael Velasquez (right) cozies up to the newest antiwar protesters, the Cubans, with the help of Rafael Dominguez (center)

"Rafael Antonio Velasquez," he begins, "I just wanted to talk to you about the war in Iraq."

The hefty woman, dressed in a flowery nightgown and struggling with her walker, slowly opens the front door and smiles at the handsome young man behind her screen. Her cheeks squeeze her eyes into a squint.

Velasquez politely asks what she thinks about the war, but before she can speak, an elderly man with a plump panza, shorts hiked above his belly button, and a garbage bag in his hand, surprises him from behind:

"Where do you live?" the obviously irate man demands, speaking in Spanish.

"Here," Velasquez answers, turning to face his aggressor.

"Then why don't you defend your country, especially after what happened in 9/11?"

Velasquez smiles. He knew it would come to this. When he campaigned in Little Havana for the state legislature last year in District 107 (which also includes South Beach, Brickell, the Roads, Allapattah, Key Biscayne, Coral Gables, and parts of downtown, Coconut Grove, and Pinecrest), he ran into similar opposition to his ideas -- obstinate, tough, blue-blooded Cuban exiles who continue to fight the good fight; men who mix Castro and Chavez into the same sentence with Osama and Saddam. He lost the congressional race, and is losing this battle as well.

"I've been here 42 years," the man continues, blood pumping through his face as he stares right through Velasquez, giving him no time to speak. "This is communist propaganda. They said the same thing about Vietnam.... We either fight or get on our knees."

"9/11 has nothing to do with Iraq," Velasquez offers, but it's too late. The man is already walking toward the garbage can, muttering words like "propaganda," "communists," and "Che Guevara" to himself.

Last February 15 may go down as the single biggest antiwar protest in the history of the world. Millions marched in Rome, Madrid, Dublin, Brussels, Berlin, Paris, and Montreal. In London the throngs virtually shut down the city. In New York thousands of marchers took on police, their pepper spray, and their horses. In San Francisco hundreds of thousands paraded down Market Street, singing long-forgotten songs like "Down by the Riverside" ("I ain't gonna study war no more ...").

But in Miami, a city that is no stranger to large protests -- witness the close to 50,000 who recently turned out to protest Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez -- just a few hundred peace proponents showed up at the Torch of Friendship. Their enthusiasm, tough words, and lively placards mitigated the sparse turnout, but begged the question: Where's the antiwar movement in South Florida?

The obvious answer is that it doesn't exist, that the Bushistas in Little Havana and elsewhere in Miami unqualifiedly support a war in Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. But Velasquez's walk through the historically hard-core pro-Republican camp challenges this notion:

"Bush is a jackass," one man standing behind his chainlink fence tells the lawyer in English. "He just wants to finish what his daddy didn't." "I don't like this war," a young mother with two daughters in tow blurts out to Velasquez in Spanish. "If they have this war, they'll take away all our kids." Others agree: a college student sitting on a car; a teenage construction worker on his stoop; a middle-age man running his fruit and vegetable stand, who says the Bush administration "should just wait [for U.N. inspectors] to finish."

Of course some turn away and purse their lips at Velasquez as he starts into his litany of reasons why the U.S. "needs to build an international coalition": "He [Bush] thinks he's John Wayne," Velasquez yells to the men at the fruit stand.

"They should just get rid of Iraq," a man sitting in a lawn chair counters, without specifying how, exactly. "And I'm antiwar," he adds, curiously.

But most of the people Velasquez talks to nod their heads when he passionately reaches out to them. "The hardest thing to overcome is the Bushism," the lawyer explains as we're walking away. "[Nearly] all of them voted for Bush, so it's hard to admit that maybe they made a mistake."

It's also hard for them to make the connection between the war in Iraq and their lives. "It's easier to argue against a dictator than [against] a war," Velasquez says, referring to the anti-Castro and anti-Chavez marches. Analysts concur. "Miami has a very large Latino population," says Uva de Aragon, a professor of humanities at FIU. "And they're concerned with their own issues."

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