Alex Penelas, a man of the people (as long as those people are Cuban-American voters)
Alex Penelas, a man of the people (as long as those people are Cuban-American voters)
AP/Wide World Photo


The U.S. State Department routinely advises Americans living abroad to keep their passports handy. Given the events of last week, it won't be long before the agency includes Miami-Dade County in that advisory. In fact I've begun grabbing my passport whenever I leave the house. It must be obvious to everyone right now that Miami is no longer part of the good ol' U.S.A.

The Cubanization of South Florida was completed on March 29, when Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas declared that the county's police department would not assist in the lawful removal of Elian Gonzalez from his Little Havana home, even if the president of the United States and the attorney general ordered it.

Clearly Penelas doesn't care that a federal judge ruled the attorney general has the authority to order Elian's removal. It doesn't matter to Penelas that he took an oath to defend and support the Constitution of the United States. Evidently Penelas, who is up for re-election this year, has decided that pandering to the Cuban exile community is more important than living up to his responsibilities as an elected official.

Penelas wasn't alone in threatening federal authorities. Miami Mayor Joe Carollo made a similar pronouncement, as did a handful of other mayors, the precise number of which seems to be dropping by the hour. The public has come to expect nutty statements from Carollo, but Penelas was supposed to be different in such matters. He is a Democrat, after all. He also was viewed as someone capable of bridging the often fractious divide between Cuban Americans and everyone else in Miami-Dade County.

Coincidentally Penelas uttered his now infamous words the same day the New York Times, in an editorial, called for all sides in the Elian Gonzalez case to show restraint. "Responsible voices in the Cuban-American community need to step forward to mediate the situation," the Times editorial stated. But last week Penelas showed the entire nation that he is not one of those responsible voices. Presented with an opportunity to play the role of dignified statesman in this crisis, he opted instead for irresponsible, inflammatory rhetoric. Lashing out at both President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno, the mayor threw a childish temper tantrum on the steps of the federal courthouse.

"If their continued provocation, in the form of unjustified threats to revoke the boy's parole, leads to civil unrest and violence, we are holding the federal government responsible, and specifically Janet Reno and the president of the United States, for anything that may occur in this community," Penelas vowed ominously. If Miami should erupt, he appeared to be saying, the blame would lie with the federal government, not with those who would incite and commit the mayhem. Miami's potential rioters were being absolved in advance of blame for any violence that might occur.

Reporters tried to ask the mayor follow-up questions. If federal marshals came to Little Havana to remove Elian, would local police be willing to provide crowd control so the marshals wouldn't be injured? The mayor stammered and didn't seem to know what to say. If local police did provide such crowd control, wouldn't they in effect be helping federal authorities remove the child? Penelas said the press was splitting hairs and then tried to explain how he would handle each request for assistance on a "case by case" basis.

Lovely. In addition to his duties as mayor, Penelas will also now assume the role of dispatcher, deciding on an individual basis which calls warrant a response from the police.

A few hours later, President Clinton held a press conference, primarily to announce a deal struck with OPEC that would likely result in lower gas prices. But the questions soon turned to the supercharged atmosphere surrounding Elian. (White House reporters consistently referred to Penelas as the "mayor of Miami," an appropriate diminution of stature under the circumstances.)

"Mr. President," one correspondent began, "the mayor of Miami, back on the Elian Gonzalez case, the mayor of Miami said today that he would withhold any assistance from the city, including police, if federal authorities decide to return Elian Gonzalez to Cuba, and that if there were any violence in the streets, he would hold you and Attorney General Reno personally responsible for that. That seems to sound like an invitation for the community to block federal authorities, and an assurance to them that the Miami police will stand aside."

"Well I like the mayor very much," Clinton responded, "but I still believe in the rule of law here. We all have to, whatever the law is, whatever decision is ultimately made, the rest of us ought to obey it."

You know you're way out of line when the president -- particularly this president -- has to lecture you on the rule of law.

Reno made similarly reasoned comments when pressed about Penelas's attempt to demonize her. She noted that she has allowed the relatives months to pursue their claims in court, even though she could have attempted to return the child to Cuba at any time. "But then some officials yesterday suggested that if we take action, it is a provocation, a provoking of people that would produce risk, that would produce violence," Reno said. "They said that they would not be responsible for that, that I would be. The people I know in the Cuban community came to this country and have contributed so much to it because they believe in the rule of law. I don't think they came to this country to incite violence."

It would appear Reno has more faith in the rectitude of Miami's Cuban community than Penelas. And Reno is correct. The majority of the 800,000 Cuban Americans living in Miami-Dade County will not riot if Elian is removed from the house. Those who do decide to lead and participate in unlawful acts have a separate agenda over which neither Penelas nor Reno will have any control.

But in the long run, to acquiesce in such threats and intimidation would be far more destructive to this community than any havoc a few hundred or even a few thousand angry protesters might cause. Besides, what are they going to do? Burn down their own homes in Little Havana? Loot the shops along Calle Ocho? I don't think so. They'll cause traffic jams and maybe shut down the airport and the seaport for a few days. And then order will be restored and life will go on.

The most interesting aspect of Penelas's ill-considered remarks was his reaction to the public's contempt for what he had to say. Within hours of rendering his indictment of Clinton and Reno, the mayor found himself doing a lot of backpedaling, blaming the media for taking his statements out of context. Watching Penelas try to wiggle free of his own words reminded me why I have so little respect for our sexy little mayor. He's a coward.

If he wants to reprise the role of Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who tried to defy the federal government's lawful integration of one of the state's universities, then Penelas should at least be man enough to stand by his words, not disown them. If he passionately believes what he said and was speaking from the heart, then there would have been no reason to clarify his remarks.

Penelas, however, has no heart. He is a political machine driven by polls and the desire to please everyone. He knows the Cubans in Miami will remember his declarations of war; at the same time he hopes to mollify anger within the Anglo and black communities by blaming the media for misinterpreting his comments. He may even succeed.

The Herald noted last week that many political consultants thought Penelas may have actually helped his national political aspirations by raising his level of name recognition. Ultimately the public won't remember what the mayor said, only his name. For a politician like Penelas, that is ideal.

In the meantime folks here in Miami-Dade County might want to ask him a few questions. For instance perhaps the mayor can explain how his bizarre behavior will benefit anyone other than himself. Is his portrayal of Miami as a city on the brink of violent riots more or less likely to attract new businesses to the area? Is it more or less likely to create new jobs? And is it more or less likely to drive businesses out of Miami-Dade County?

During his news conference, Penelas said it was his opinion that removing Elian from South Florida would harm the child. He certainly is entitled to hold such an opinion. And if he were a federal judge assigned to hear the lawsuit brought by Elian's Miami relatives, or if he were the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or if he were the attorney general of the United States, that opinion would matter. But he isn't, and it doesn't.

Penelas's attempt to usurp the authority of those individuals by threatening to use his office to thwart efforts to return this child to his father was not only offensive, it was just plain wrong. By prolonging this travesty, Penelas is only harming Elian. You would think that a man with two boys of his own would be willing to set aside his personal opinions and political ambitions long enough to recognize the right of a father to be with his son.


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