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A Case of Violent Intimidation?

Maximo Sarracino might have been the target of kids with BB guns or of adults with Mind Police complexes
Steve Satterwhite

In Miami, two unpleasantries in addition to death and taxes have been inevitable for the past four decades: violent intimidation of various people and enterprises perceived to be pro-Cuba or communist, and a near-total failure of authorities to find the perpetrators. Just last month a Calle Ocho art gallery, Maxoly Art Cuba, was vandalized after the opening of an exhibition that had been strenuously protested by a small but vocal segment of the Cuban exile community.

As crimes go, this wasn't major; monetary losses were less than $5000 and nobody was hurt. But the real damage in this case was unseen and pernicious. The worst injury was to the artist's finances and reputation, because the gallery owner, Maximo Sarracino, was intimidated into taking down the exhibit. The incident also reinforced the image many hold of Miami as a dangerously intolerant town where the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression is less a right than a hope, frequently dashed.

On May 2 and May 4, according to what Sarracino told police, someone shot pellets or BBs, or possibly .22 caliber bullets, into Maxoly Art Cuba gallery's front and side windows, causing one panel to shatter. The first damage occurred a few days after the April 26 opening of an oil painting exhibition commemorating the 100th anniversary of Cuba's independence from Spain. On May 1 about twenty members of the exile group Vigilia Mambisa gathered outside Maxoly for one of their trademark noisy, chanting, banner-bedecked demonstrations. Either at the opening or during the demonstration (accounts differ), an artist friend of Sarracino's, who feared more trouble if his name were published, said he was roughed up outside the gallery and his car scratched by people he believed were punishing him for his support of the show.

It's hard to figure why Vigilia picked Cuban-born pop artist Cesar Beltrán's work to get upset about. Of all the Cuba-themed art and music that have been presented to the Miami public, Beltrán's oil paintings are hardly the most politically incorrect by right-wing standards. If anything his works are anti-Castro, depicting the Cuban leader with blood on his hands, and as Death itself. But the word rational is rarely used to describe Vigilia Mambisa. That is at least partly why police officers with Miami-Dade County's joint terrorism task force were monitoring the May 1 demonstration outside Maxoly. Among the duties of the twelve-year-old task force, which integrates local and federal law enforcement efforts, is keeping an eye on the activities of South Florida's numerous Cuban exile outfits. "We had learned there was going to be a demonstration," relates Miami-Dade Police Det. Luis Rodriguez, who works with the task force. "We realized it may be a situation where something might result in a violent act, so we notified the city [of Miami] and we went over."

But there's no proof Vigilia Mambisa had anything to do with the actual vandalism, and even Beltrán, who has appeared to defend his work on Spanish-language radio with Vigilia leader Miguel Saavedra, doesn't believe they did it. "I said on the radio I was convinced Vigilia was not a violent organization," Beltrán explains. "I never thought Vigilia was the author of the shootings. I don't know who it was."

The first "shooting," early in the morning of May 2, produced a tiny hole in one panel of the gallery's front windows. Sarracino went personally to a Miami Police Department substation on Coral Way to make a report, but no one came out to look at the damage. After the second shooting, very early on May 4, an officer was dispatched to the scene and later reported "Mr. Sarracino ... heard the sound of breaking tempered [reinforced] glass in the front position of his store. Mr. Sarracino then ... observed that two of his glass window's [sic] had been broken with a BB gun." Actually one side panel had been shattered by a single shot but was still standing; at that time Sarracino noticed a second small hole in a front window, near the first shot.

The reporting officer also notified the department's Special Investigations Section (SIS) of the incident and of the possibility it was related to the Maxoly art exhibit. This was routine procedure because SIS handles both politically motivated and hate crimes. The SIS officer who received the call, however, Sgt. Rafael Masferre, supervises the bomb detail, and since there was no explosive evidence found at the scene he didn't pursue the case. The officer who should have been told of the Maxoly shootings, Sgt. J.J. Fernandez of the intelligence unit, didn't learn of them until New Times called him about ten days later. Although Fernandez had been aware of the Vigilia Mambisa demonstration, he didn't know the gallery had been damaged. He assigned a detective to the case. As of Friday the investigation was continuing.

 

Many Little Havana beat officers pass by his gallery, though, and Sarracino says they've offered various analyses of the situation. "I've talked to several officers," he recalls. "One came in and looked at the window and said it was a BB gun, then another one said no, it has to be a .22. No one has found any evidence -- no bullet, no casing, nothing. And all the police I talk to tell me, 'I can show you a long list of unsolved cases, and this is probably going to be one of them.'"

"Unfortunately unless we have an eyewitness or one of our informants comes forward we really can't make a case," Fernandez says. "If there's no physical evidence and no one is coming forward there's going to be a 99 percent chance there's no case. Because of the fact this demonstration was so close it could be [the shootings] came as a result, but we can't look at it that way because there are a thousand possibilities. It could be a huge coincidence, or just a couple of kids running down Eighth Street shooting BBs."

Ramon Cernuda, long-time Miami art collector and gallery owner, has been the target of threats and bombings because of his support of artists living in Cuba. He thinks the police have given intimidation low priority in case-solving. "The police did not catch anyone in the Eighties, when there were at least seventeen bombings in Miami, some against cultural institutions like our museum, some against university professors," Cernuda says. "It's really a very difficult thing to catch these people locally. I'm afraid the most effective weapon against this is social rejection; as the community rejects these terrorist tactics and these people realize they're not being effective, eventually they will give up. I think the cause of intolerance in Miami really is a lost cause."

Angel Calzadilla, executive assistant to Miami Police Chief Raul Martinez, asserts his department does indeed take politically motivated crimes seriously: "Our policy is to follow up and pursue to the fullest crimes against society," Calzadilla says.

Yet in the end the shootings scared Sarracino enough to remove Beltrán's paintings about a week after the second incident. Sarracino had previously vowed to the news media he would leave the offending exhibit where it was, but changed his mind, he says, because his family was concerned for his safety. Among other reasons he cited for retiring the show, scheduled to run until May 24, were the need to clean up and repair the gallery in preparation for his next exhibition. "In Miami, in the year 2002, there are Cubans who can threaten their countrymen and deny them liberty," complains Sarracino.

After the second incident he contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, wanting the organization to condemn the shootings, but Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, president of the greater Miami chapter, did not see them as just another case of Miami-style repression. "The police need to investigate," Rodriguez-Taseff says. "In the meantime I think we need to be very careful to differentiate between private disputes and overall community intolerance. Every day you have performances [relating to Cuba] going on either without protests or with protests, but without incident. This is either an isolated incident or a private dispute. Are these issues being used to manipulate a public response?"

A week ago, with his gallery windows fixed, Sarracino decided to redisplay four of Beltrán's paintings, including Hope (featured on New Times's cover, May 23 issue), the image of a nude woman superimposed on a Cuban flag. "Two of the [reinstalled] paintings are hung so you can't really see them from the street," Sarracino explains. "The intention is to leave on display some of the more recognized paintings, hopefully so they'll be sold."

Nevertheless Beltrán, who in 1996 was granted political asylum in the United States because of artistic persecution in Cuba, asserts the entire brouhaha didn't have to happen. "I want to make clear the decision to take down the exhibit is still bad for me," he says. "I'm happy if he sells something and I would consider myself in some way compensated, but I'm angry with the decision. I felt completely abandoned when [Sarracino] suddenly told me he was taking down the exhibit. I didn't have a written contract, so there was nothing I could do, but this has hurt me professionally and financially."

When told of Beltrán's remarks, and of Rodriguez-Taseff's implied suggestion that his problems were personal rather than political, Sarracino said: "My problem was a practical matter. I had no protection for Beltrán's paintings, so I took them down and locked up my gallery while I fixed the windows. As for me having a fight with a neighbor, and trying to pass it off as repression for publicity, I am not that kind of man."


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