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Iván Dominguez was bound to offend el exilio when he pitched his tent at the foot the Monument of Martyrs at SW Eighth Street and Thirteenth Avenue. In Cuban Miami, the area around the obelisk is hallowed ground. The six-sided marble edifice, topped with a lit torch, is a memorial to the fallen fighters of Brigade 2506, the anti-Castro exiles who were soundly defeated by Fidel Castro's military in the botched Bay of Pigs invasion 45 years ago.
On the morning of this past May 8, an elderly Cuban gent stopped his white Toyota, exited the car, and confronted Dominguez. The driver, his mustached face sizzling with anger, pointed to the brigade's memorial: "You need to show them respect!" he exclaimed in Spanish. Rabid spittle flew from his mouth as he screamed at Dominguez: "You shit-eater. Clown! Someone needs to put a bullet in you!"
Dominguez, who was holding a long plywood stick, responded with his own barrage of obscenities and threats. "If you're really a man, come here so I can split your head open!" Dominguez challenged, banging the end of his staff hard on the brick sidewalk.
The elderly potty-mouth returned to his car but left Dominguez a warning: "If you're still here tonight, someone is going to take care of you."
After the Toyota disappeared eastbound on Eighth Street, Dominguez promised to crack the skulls of anyone who tried to harm him or one of his two canine companions. "I've got a bayonet in my tent too," he said. "I'll attach it to the end of this stick and gut any son of a bitch that tries to mess with me. It will be self-defense. I have a right to be here."
Indeed he did. Early last month the Miami Police Department approved a special-events permit for Dominguez to stage a hunger strike from dawn on April 17, the Bay of Pigs anniversary, to dusk on December 31. But Dominguez's stunt seems to have alienated his countrymen in Little Havana. He claims several elderly Bay of Pigs veterans assaulted him the day his protest began. Court records and interviews reveal other troubling facts about his life in Miami: He has psychological problems, he has been accused of stalking an ex-girlfriend, and police recently picked him up for setting an apartment on fire.
Dominguez, a lithe 43-year-old with intense green eyes, dresses in white linen pants, an olive green T-shirt, sandals, and a straw hat that covers his dense, curly black-and-gray hair. He holds the nub of a Cuban cigar and smokes intermittently while relating his saga. He speaks in rapid-fire, at times incoherent, Spanish, jumping erratically from subject to subject. One minute he is furious and ready to brawl. The next he is bawling.
Dominguez was born in Havana on January 6, 1963. His mother, he claims, was an Afro-Cuban Santería priestess and his father was a political prisoner. On July 17, 1993, he traveled alone from Guadalajara to the Mexico-Texas border and crossed onto U.S. soil. He says he came to the United States to escape poverty and Communism.
"I found a church where they gave me new clothes and let me call my brother in Florida," Dominguez says. "He drove from Ocala to pick me up, and I stayed with him for about three weeks. Then I came to Miami."
But things haven't worked out for Dominguez, who has been living on and off the streets since he arrived in the subtropics. According to court records, he was evicted from an apartment at 111 NE Second Ave. in May 2004 for failure to pay his rent. Dominguez adds that he suffers from schizophrenia and a chemical imbalance when his blood sugar is low.
On November 14, 2004, Dominguez's ex-girlfriend Cecilia Bertomeu obtained a permanent restraining order against him. At the time, the Habanero had been living with Bertomeu in her apartment in North Bay Village for almost two months. Bertomeu claimed Dominguez was overly possessive, telephoning her constantly to harass her. Court documents state that after a heated argument, Bertomeu informed Dominguez she no longer wanted to see him and demanded he leave her apartment. He refused. She slept at a friend's house for three nights until Dominguez finally left.
But he didn't go far. He shacked up with Bertomeu's next-door neighbor, according to court documents that Dominguez confirmed.
Dominguez stayed out of trouble until this past March 7, when he was arrested for trespassing after he refused to leave a Coral Gables office building. The misdemeanor charge was dismissed.
One month later, Dominguez applied for the permit for his hunger strike. Around 6:00 a.m. April 17, Dominguez sat down about six feet in front of the monument so he would not interfere with the brigade's planned ceremony that morning. "You would think my fellow Cubans would have supported me," Dominguez scoffs.
He was sitting on a six-by-four-foot sheet of canvas and reading a book when, he says, a heavyset bald man wearing an orange shirt confronted him. "He asked me what the devil I was doing there," Dominguez recalls. "And he said that I was going to be in trouble when the brigade members got here."
About an hour-and-a-half later, Dominguez said, he was surrounded by 25 to 30 members of the Bay of Pigs brigade and sympathizers. "They spat on me," Dominguez claims. "They hit me in the face; they threatened me. They called me a santero and a spy." Miami Police officers intervened and restored order without arresting anybody, Dominguez says. So the protester packed up his canvas and left.
Brigade secretary Esteban Bovo Caras disputes Dominguez's account. "There were no physical altercations," Bovo Caras says. "Maybe someone told him to go to el carajo." The brigade, Bovo Caras adds, respected Dominguez's right to protest. "As long as he doesn't damage the monument or anything like that," Bovo Caras says, "he can stay there as long as he wants."
After the alleged altercation, Dominguez refocused his protest against the brigade, the Bush administration, and Miami's Cuban-American congressional representatives. "They're worse than Castro," he says.
On April 22, Dominguez's life took yet another turn. Miami Police detectives collared him on a felony arson charge. According to the arrest affidavit, firefighters responded to a blaze that evening at 1609 SW Eighth St., an apartment building with retail stores on the ground floor.
Dominguez had called 911 and informed the dispatcher that the fire began on top of a mattress. An arson investigator later verified that was the cause. Police detectives confronted Dominguez later that evening and asked him how he knew the fire's cause. "Intuition," was the response, according to the arrest report.
Dominguez denies igniting the blaze. "It's all a conspiracy because they don't want me near the monument," the Cuban immigrant offers.
After he bonded out of jail, he returned to the monument May 4 the same day he was booted from another apartment at 1309 SW Sixth St. He pitched his tent, which covered a mattress to sleep on and an ottoman where he could sit and read. He was accompanied by Bibi, a black-and-tan Yorkie mix; and Bobi, a terrier with curly gray hair.
On May 9 around 2:00 p.m., Dominguez, Bibi, Bobi, and the tent were gone. According to Miami Police spokesman William Moreno, Dominguez was arrested on charges of threatening a public servant and resisting arrest without violence. Moreno says a team of police officers was conducting a "quality of life" sweep in the neighborhood when they picked him up.
Although Dominguez held a valid permit, he had tied the tent to the monument, which was not allowed, Moreno says. "He was asked several times to detach it, and he refused," the spokesman adds. "When they told him they were going to untie the tent, he told a lieutenant: 'I'm going to kick your ass.'"