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

How to Organize a Peace Protest in Little Havana

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 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."

The incredible power of the Cuban-exile community to mobilize supporters for "their own issues" was on full display a month ago, when, in just three weeks, it organized a massive march against Hugo Chavez -- the democratically elected president of Venezuela, who has been fighting a three-month-old general strike aimed at toppling his increasingly strict regime. (Chavez's next move may put restrictions on the very pro-opposition press; he has arrested one opposition leader and has issued arrest warrants for others.) Anti-Chavez forces say the Venezuelan president is Castro's messenger and heir apparent. This -- along with Chavez's social agenda that has drawn widespread support from the poor in Venezuela and disdain from the wealthy in exile -- is provoking the massive display of disaffection both here and in Venezuela.

But both the Cubans and Venezuelans here know there was more to the so-called "Mega March" against Chavez than the traditional anti-Castro-equals-big-turnout formula. To pull together the pieces for the anti-Chavez protest, the Cuban-exile machine mobilized dozens of organizers who hit newsstands, restaurants, old-folks homes, and one-story villas in Little Havana. They passed out pamphlets, put up posters, and most important, put ads in community newspapers and on the Spanish-language radio and television stations. They had their Venezuelan counterparts do the same. The result was something resembling an antiwar protest during the Vietnam era rolling down Calle Ocho.

There are dozens of people in the antiwar movement working day and night, putting up Websites, sending e-mails, and making phone calls. But Velasquez complains that it's difficult to pull together the pieces for much of anything, much less a massive demonstration. "I want to have a press release, but I can't even get approval from the steering committee," he says. The steering committee -- twenty people from a dozen different antiwar, environmental, socialist, and religious organizations who get together on Sundays at the Coral Gables Congregational Church --eventually told him to put it out in the name of his group, People United for Truth in Iraq, which he did. Don't get that confused with Concerned People in Opposition to War in Iraq, the former name of Velasquez's South Beach-based group, or Miami for Peace, or Miami Coalition Against the War, or any of the other long-winded ways of simply saying antiwar.

Not that the names of the Cuban or Venezuelan groups aren't confusing. There are over 200 Cuban-exile groups and a few dozen Venezuelan groups. But the Venezuelans, for instance, recently formed one umbrella organization, Todos por Venezuela, and worked with one single liaison to organize the "Mega March" last month. They gave people specific organizing jobs in their traditional spheres of influence and then lit up the phone banks. "They all wanted to help us," Sarita Bittan, the head of Todos por Venezuela, told me. "The whole Cuban-exile community was there."

In contrast, the Miami antiwar movement has people sending out e-mails and faxes to anyone and everyone simultaneously. But there's little central organization. Each group, for example, has a different march on a different day, or even on the same day. On the Wednesday that I accompanied him in Little Havana, Velasquez was organizing for a Saturday march in South Beach. Peace South Florida had also scheduled one for Saturday. On that Friday, there were two more events. If you're a peace activist, where do you go? Who do you call? How many days can you spare?

In the end, Velasquez starts to get it. He finishes his tour in Little Havana at Rafael Dominguez's house; Rafael is a jovial, potbellied Cuban exile who's been a local organizer for years. "I got twenty people ready for you tomorrow," he tells the excited Velasquez, who is being distracted by his host's blaring TV and the half-dressed women on a Channel 41 game show. The twenty will be part of the fifty or so who will arrive for the food that Dominguez's group, Vecinos en Accion, or Neighbors in Action, will be handing out. In exchange for the food, these people will pass out antiwar pamphlets, Dominguez explains. "If you did a march in Little Havana," Dominguez reveals, "there'd be the same number of people as when they did the [anti-]Chavez march!"

Velasquez's eyes widen, then he looks down at the floor, then back at the TV, and up to Dominguez again.

"Yeah?" his eyes seem to ask.

Maybe these Cubans know what they're doing ...


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