Meet Miami's Next Mayor

Part 2: Miriam Alonso knows how to put votes together, but she can't seem to separate dirty tricks from politics

By Steven Almond
Miriam Alonso wanted to make the point crystal clear: She was not responsible for the "Miriam Alonso for Mayor" banner that flew overhead during the recent burial of seven Cuban refugees who drowned off the coast of Mexico. She would never be so crass as to exploit the dead. Such skullduggery, she announced at a press conference this past Wednesday, could only be the doing of Steve Clark, her principal rival for mayor in the November 2 election.

"He should raise his campaign out of the sewer," she told the assembled journalists and partisans. Indignant aides held aloft Clark's alleged handiwork: desecrated campaign signs, anti-Alonso bumper stickers, photos purportedly showing a young Miriam posing with Fidel Castro. The most galling artifact, a huge homemade poster branding Alonso a comunista, hung before her, red paint spattered like blood over the offending word. Nor had Clark's nefarious tactics stopped at slander. Alonso implied that his campaign also had vandalized her daughter's home. Two grandchildren, victims of this putative strike, scampered in front of the podium.

As she spoke, Alonso's army of supporters yelled her name in exaltation. Her husband Leonel, who until August 1966 had spent six years in Castro's diplomatic corps, skulked among the crowd, content to be forgotten amid this redbaiting.

But Alonso vowed revenge. She brandished a letter addressed to State Attorney Kathy Rundle, demanding an investigation of Clark's alleged airplane-banner trick. Miriam Alonso a political opportunist? The very idea was an outrage.

Unless, that is, you happened to be present at another press conference held a week earlier. This one, sponsored by the Cuban American National Foundation and convened in a basement room of Coconut Grove's Hermita de la Caridad Church, starred the eight Cubans who had survived the harrowing trip from Cuba to Mexico to Miami. Instant heroes in the exile community, they now faced dozens of reporters itching for firsthand stories of their adventure. With a Catholic Mass slated in less than an hour, and hundreds waiting outside to see them, time was of the essence.

All of which made Alonso's appearance a bit baffling. While Foundation officials were there to recount how they had pushed Mexican and U.S. authorities to accept the refugees, it was not immediately apparent why the commissioner had shown up. As she edged past reporters toward the podium, her purpose became obvious: she wanted to be part of this grand photo opportunity. Even if it meant interrupting the entire proceeding.

Which is just what she did. With chants of impatience rising from the throngs outside, and television cameramen turning to leave, Alonso bustled across the room, proclaiming her need to make an announcement. Much to the consternation of Foundation officials and restless reporters, she commandeered the podium and improvised a speech welcoming the survivors on behalf of the City of Miami. Then she flung her arms around refugee Hilda Perez.

Presumptuous? Perhaps. But what more appropriate way for Miami's newest exiles to meet the woman who would be their mayor?

AWOL from Miriam's Army Jorge cannot give his real name because, he feels sure, he would be fired. Or worse. The last time he was caught fomenting against a leader -- and that was in Cuba more than a decade ago -- he went to prison for six years. That kind of trouble he doesn't need. He has a job with the city. Menial. Low-paying. But a toehold. Enough to cover the cost of his home, a tiny aluminum trailer where five people live in a space meant for two.

So there is reluctance, and a few excuses, before Jorge finally agrees to excavate the remnants of his tour with Miriam's army. "They held weekly meetings where Leonel ordered us volunteers to steal the newspapers with negative things about Miriam," he explains. "We were also supposed to call to the radio talk shows." Jorge reaches into a closet and hands over a satchel of papers. "We were supposed to read these on the air." Atop each sheet is the name of an Alonso enemy; beneath is a series of different scripts to be read on various radio call-in programs. Many are blatantly racist, such as this excerpt from a script aimed at Victor De Yurre: "Everything this man touches ends up in a black neighborhood. I'll grant that for Miller Donkey, but senores, this senor gives more benefits to the blacks than to his own Cuban race. Could it be that he finds Africa so near to his family, or that he likes it?"

In other scripts, Mayor Xavier Suarez is condemned as a spineless skirt-chaser, while City Manager Cesar Odio is accused of "selling his soul to the devil of Fidel" because his sister-in-law is on the board of the Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture, which has exhibited paintings by Cuban artists who remain on the island. The stapled packet contains a typewritten telephone directory of Spanish-language radio stations and a schedule of shows to be called, with "Jorge" scribbled beside three time slots.

Jorge marches outside, past the ripped porch screens and rusted toys, to a musty storage shed. From beneath a sack of fertilizer he pulls out a stack of periodiquitos, the weekly tabloids that both reflect and help fuel the rumor mill in Little Havana. "We were told to steal these every Friday," he says. Water-rotted, a few more than two years old, each paper contains some slight against the Alonsos.

Having collected hundreds of dollars from friends for Alonso's 1989 city commission campaign, Jorge says he grew disillusioned after her election: "I didn't want to do anything illegal any more." He rips in half a faded Miriam Alonso placard. "No name," he insists again. "Please remember."

Johnny Viso wants his name used. "We all do," he says, gesturing to the anxious faces gathered around his Westchester kitchen table. "We want to say to the people of Miami that we're sorry. We didn't know who Miriam was --" Before he can finish, the room erupts into angry discourse. For the next two hours six former Miriamistas describe their lives inside the Alonso camp. They, too, tell of slanderous radio scripts, of stolen newspapers, and of threats used to extort help from city employees or their families.

"Miriam helped me get a job with the city, but then she expects me to be like a slave," complains Rafael Tellez, a carpenter. "Her office used to pull me off work to call radio talk shows and to move things between her apartments. I did it so long as I was paid by the city. But then she wanted me to lose work days so I could help Alfredo Bared in his [1991] race against Victor De Yurre. I refused. Then I guess she got worried, because she tried to convince me that I'd never been paid by the city to work for her. She tried blaming it on her staff. She even tried to accuse me of stealing. I said, 'Go ahead. Bring the police. You're the one going to jail.'"

Eugenio Ramirez, a butcher, helped pull down signs of Alonso opponents and protested at city hall. "They make you feel so involved you don't ever think if what you're doing is wrong. But they put so much pressure that my wife got sick," he says. His wife, sitting beside him, implores him to be quiet. "She's still nervous," Ramirez says.

"My wife was threatened, too," adds Pepe Garcia, a truck driver, "that they would fire her from her city job unless she agreed to give her car to other volunteers so they could steal newspapers."

Olga Perez pledged her support to Alonso back in 1984 because she admired Alonso's father, prominent Cuban politician Guillermo Ara. "But gradually my faith disappeared," says Perez, a state worker specializing in public assistance to the poor. "I don't think they care about the old and needy. I remember going to a lunch program for the elderly, and these viejitos came to greet Leonel. He gave them a big hug. But when he walked away, I heard him say, 'Oh, they're so disgusting.'"

To the public, Leonel Alonso is known as the man who used to applaud embarrassingly loudly at Miriam's public appearances. But ex-volunteers portray him as a notorious hothead who lives vicariously through his wife and guards her honor with a vengeance. "One time Angel Maldonado, the editor of El Expreso, printed that Miriam was having an affair," recalls Garcia, the truck driver. "Leonel got so furious he told me to descojonarlo. To fuck him up. He said they had lawyers if anything bad happened." Another volunteer, who requested anonymity, claims Leonel made the same request of him.

"He does most of the dirty work because Miriam wants to shield herself," recalls Johnny Viso, a campaign coordinator in Alonso's 1989 race for city commission. "But she knew what was going on. It's like they say, Leonel es Miriam y Miriam es Leonel."

Viso says working with the Alonsos dragged him into a world of paranoia and plotting, where grudges took on a foreboding cast. Death threats are certainly nothing new to the Alonsos. Several years ago they publicly accused Victor De Yurre, Sr., the city commissioner's father, of plotting to kill them. Last April Metro-Dade police arrested Javier Soto for allegedly soliciting a hit man to kill Miriam, who had pushed for greater city control over Soto's Latin Stars program, which honors prominent Latin entertainers with sidewalk stars on Calle Ocho. (Prosecutors dropped the charges, citing lack of evidence. Soto, still shaken by the incident, maintains he was set up by somebody.)

"At the beginning, when they would shout, we thought they were just nervous," Viso recalls. "But pretty soon we realized that's how they are all the time." The 911 call is a good example, he says. This past February burglars broke into the home of the Alonsos' daughter. As they were leaving the residence, they bumped into a babysitter returning home with Alonso's three grandchildren and quickly fled.

Upon learning of the burglary, Miriam called 911 emergency operators three times. Though the situation was no longer an emergency, she demanded that a dispatcher send police in less than four minutes. "This is Commissioner Miriam Alonso," she announced. "They tried to steal my grandchildren, and I need the policemen right now!" Within minutes half a dozen squad cars were at the scene, along with Police Chief Calvin Ross and City Manager Odio. Though the city code prohibits commissioners from giving orders to municipal employees, no investigation was undertaken. The Florida Commission on Ethics, however, announced last week that it found "probable cause" to believe that Alonso had violated ethics regulations. A full investigation will now begin. If the commission determines Alonso is guilty, she could be reprimanded or removed from office.

No one knows the Alonsos' modus operandi better than Johnny Viso's wife, Emilci. She worked for Miriam Alonso as a full-time special aide for more than three years, from November 1989 to this past January, when she resigned. Though she never got a pay raise from Alonso, in May 1991 she did receive a $1250 bonus. But Emilci Viso recalls her tenure as a living hell. "Miriam had me set up phone banks in her office. She would send me to Hialeah to pick someone up in my car. All on city time," Viso says. "I had to drive her daughter around, and one time she even ordered me to babysit her grandchildren."

The commissioner's staff, Viso claims, was routinely expected to work overtime and weekends unpaid, and to endure tirades from both Alonsos. She remembers an incident in which Miriam shoved a worker named Ivonne Perez-Suarez after Perez-Suarez lowered the office air-conditioning without permission. (Perez-Suarez, who now works for Mayor Xavier Suarez, would not comment for this article.)

Viso says she stayed on the job only because her husband had cancer and couldn't work: "Once I asked to transfer to another department, but Miriam said no. When I finally quit, she screamed, 'I can destroy you and your husband and your daughters, too! You'll never work in this city!'"

According to city records, turnover in Alonso's office has been brisk. In her four years, ten full-time employees have left. New Times located six of those former staffers, but among them only Emilci Viso would comment for the record about her experiences. "Look, everything Emilci says is true. It sounds crazy, but that's how it was. You just got used to it," one former staffer offered before hanging up.

Of Alonso's office dictates, perhaps the most telling was her purported ban on socializing with political foes or their staffs. The directive illustrates how Alonso has dissolved the boundaries between the personal and political realms. Other examples abound.

In 1988, when she was running for county commissioner, Alonso made a pact with candidate Charles Dusseau to support whoever made it into the runoff against incumbent Beverly Phillips. When Dusseau successfully sued to have Alonso removed from the ballot for lying on her oath of candidacy, however, she not only backed Phillips -- whose platform she opposed -- but she has refused to speak to Dusseau since.

Like her constituents, Alonso's antennae are acutely tuned to the potential double-cross. In Little Havana, rumors abound of an apocryphal black book, in which los Alonso allegedly store their list of the "excommunicated." If such a book exists, Pablo Canton probably merits an entry.

This past April Canton, who heads the Little Havana office of the city's Neighborhood Enhancement Team, told a Herald reporter he had advised Alonso that she had to tear down one of her dilapidated properties. The day after the story was published, Canton was called to Alonso's office. He didn't speak with the commissioner, but her anger reportedly was conveyed to him by another city official who had been summoned by Alonso -- Cesar Odio. Before he knew it, Canton was the subject of a Miami Police Department internal affairs investigation. Why? Not even his lawyer seems to know. Canton has refused comment on the matter, but friends say he is being targeted by Alonso in an act of retribution.

Francisco Vidal claims he, too, is a victim of los Alonso. This past March the 66-year-old retiree was severely beaten outside Versailles restaurant in Little Havana after a political breakfast sponsored by the commissioner. Vidal's friends say the attackers, allegedly two Alonso campaign workers, pounced because they thought Vidal was putting up anti-Alonso placards. In a sworn statement given to investigators from the State Attorney's public corruption unit, Miriam Alonso denied any knowledge of or involvement in the incident. But at least one key eyewitness says Alonso and her husband Leonel watched the beating from her car, then drove both assailants from the scene.

The FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office are now investigating a complaint alleging that Leonel Alonso ordered the beating, which left Vidal with a broken arm. And Vidal's attorney says he may file a civil suit charging that Leonel directed the attack and that Miriam illegally abetted the escape of both suspects.

One of the alleged assailants, Humberto Escandon, resigned from the South Miami Police Department in 1990 following allegations he fondled teenage girls in a hotel. He later got a low-level job with the City of Miami. This past January Alonso awarded him a $4000 contract as her liaison to the elderly. Both suspects, Escandon and Pablo Esquijarosa, have pleaded innocent to charges of battery on a person 65 years or older and await trial. Their lawyers claim that five-foot-six Vidal provoked them. Escandon is being represented by attorney Jose Villalobos, who assisted Alonso in appealing the 1988 court decision that disqualified her as a county commission candidate.

Incidents like these, Johnny Viso argues, expose the Alonso regime's real character. "I was a political prisoner; so were these men," he says, pointing to the others around his kitchen table. "All the people gathered here, we fought Castro. We met Miriam through a friend from Cuba and decided to help her. Now we have seen too much the way she operates. It looks to us like she's a communist."

Viso refers, of course, not to ideology but to methodology. Not to proven fact but to emotional truth. The wellspring of his indignation -- I was a political prisoner; so were these men -- doesn't arise from what may or may not have happened outside Versailles restaurant in Miami 1993, but from what occurred in Havana 1959.

To experience the rage vented by Viso and his comrades -- the purgative bang on a kitchen table, the rasp of a voice screamed hoarse -- is to understand what playwright Rene Ariza meant when he observed that "Cuba's problem is not Fidel, but the Fidel we all carry inside."

Viewed from this vantage point, Miriam Alonso is not Fidel's antidote but his heir. And to the once faithful, the revelation of her true nature has become a re-enactment of the betrayal that landed them here.

Miriam and the Media
There was this matter of the mirrored disco ball, and whether any inadvertent beams of light would detract from the gravity of the message. The disco ball hung from the ceiling of Centro Vasco restaurant's banquet room, where Miriam Alonso was preparing to hold a press conference. She stood before a podium at the front of the room, facing a bank of TV cameras. Her aides were worried, however, that reflected dots might begin drifting over the commissioner as she spoke.

This would not do at all. The subject today was one of utmost seriousness, and the commissioner's presentation, as always, was paramount. For the occasion her hair was customarily large and sandy red, her lipstick a scarlet slash that matched her blazer. The outfit, in sum, radiated an air of subdued glamour, one not lost on the little people who would watch her on the evening news.

She began in English, describing her goodwill trip to Germany, where she had met with tourism officials and politicians to assure them that, despite the recent rash of brutal tourist attacks, Miami was a safe place to visit. The disco ball, thankfully, did not intrude.

When she finished, she opened the forum to questions. But instead a somewhat awkward silence ensued, broken finally by a voice shouting from the back of the room: "­Miriam, por favor, en espanol!" At this the commissioner smiled humbly and, without pause, sailed into a flawless recitation of the same speech in her native tongue. And all at once the room came alive. Dormant cameras whirred to life. Tape recorders clicked on. Reporters set about a flurry of scribbling.

For the Spanish-language media Alonso's return from Germany was the last installment in a well-chronicled crusade to polish Miami's tarnished image. She had, after all, paid for two radio commentators, Marta Flores and Raquel Regalado, to accompany her on the whirlwind tour, and both had filed dispatches from abroad. Alonso again had proven herself a woman of action to her admirers, many of whom viewed the tourist attacks as an affront to, rather than a byproduct of, their fair city.

Coverage in the English-language media had been miserly by comparison. The Herald, in particular, noted that local tourism officials had pleaded with Alonso not to go, fearing she would stir up more negative publicity. Columnist Liz Balmaseda acidly reduced the trip to comic relief by noting the hypocrisy of Alonso reassuring wary Deutschlanders when, just three months earlier, the commissioner had placed her panicky calls to 911 after burglars broke into her daughter's home.

More than anything the mid-May press conference was a vivid example of the schism Alonso has wrought on Miami's press. To English-language reporters she is a strident, often manipulative force. But to the Latin press, especially the radio broadcasters who cater to el exilio, Alonso is something of a folk hero.

"My business is news, and she is the politician that generates more news than any other elected official here in South Florida," notes Tomas Regalado, general news editor at Radio Mambi (WAQI-AM 710). "She's articulate and speaks to the issue. That's why she's the darling of the media."

Regalado's wife Raquel, who hosts a popular afternoon talk show on Mambi, offers an enthusiastic second. "Miriam is the person who knows reality," she says. "Many officials, after they are elected, lose contact with the community. They feel they are God. Miriam stays on top of every angle and she is the one commissioner who will return your call -- always." This availability makes her a frequent Regalado guest. "We have no personal relationship," she explains. "It is more of a public relation."

Marta Flores, on the other hand, is an unabashed Alonso groupie. "I've had a deep friendship with Miriam even before she became involved in politics," says Flores, host of "La Noche y Usted" on La Cubanisima (WQBA-AM 1140). Flores proudly identifies herself as the woman who serves as announcer for Alonso's radio campaign ads and at rallies. "What I like most about Miriam Alonso is her dedication when she believes in something, her combativeness," Flores emphasizes. "When she believes in something, she will defend it, as I will, until the end. She is aggressive in her beliefs. I call it leadership."

Through her show, Flores supplies Alonso with a direct line to her constituents. (Before his death last year, Mambi's Fernando Penabaz, dean of Cuban radio hosts, played the same role.) Flores, in turn, boosts her ratings by spotlighting Alonso and enjoys the notoriety of rubbing shoulders with one of the most powerful politicians in town. (Last year Alonso's office suggested to Javier Soto, director of the now-defunct Latin Stars program, that Flores be commemorated with a sidewalk star on Calle Ocho.)

One of the few vocal Alonso critics in the Latin media is Luis Fernandez Caubi, a crusty former radio host and columnist for Diario Las Americas. "Miriam is too much in love with the microphone," he argues. "It is a need to aggrandize herself, which has nothing to do with governing."

Caubi remembers hosting los Alonso during their early activist days, "when they made the rounds to all the stations." But as Miriam evolved from activist to candidate, Caubi grew leery of her relations with the press. "She and Leonel would come into the station with a news release. But instead of giving it to the news editor, she would go directly to the air. And then what you got wasn't just the news, but the PR as well. After she was elected, she used to call Marta Flores after each [commission] meeting and give her spin on the votes. She has even gone on radio to urge people to protest at the commission, to disrupt the political process. And my impression of this is that she was trying to govern through the radio, which is exactly what Castro did."

Alonso's role as a top newsmaker in Cuban Miami, however, also allows her considerable leverage in dealing with news directors. There are those, such as veteran broadcaster Tomas Garcia Fuste of WCMQ (AM-1210), who will admit they have gently tried to dissuade Alonso from expecting that she can show up, unannounced, for interviews. But others remain hesitant to criticize their most dependable source.

In fact, there is a common perception among Spanish-language journalists that their English-language counterparts, especially the Miami Herald, have it out for Alonso. "I think all the downtown powers, including the Herald, are fearful of Miriam because she is not someone they can tame," Tomas Regalado contends.

That observation resonates among Herald reporters assigned the task of covering Alonso. "She tries to intimidate," says one staffer. "And if you do write something that displeases her, she unleashes these thundering denunciations. She'll denounce you on radio and she'll go over your head to an editor."

A case in point: Following a July 22 commission meeting at which Alonso won concessions from Dade County concerning construction of a new sewer pipeline under Biscayne Bay, the Herald published an article saying Alonso had "retreated" from her pledge to oppose the project. Within hours Alonso was on the phone with Herald bigwigs. Later she and a cadre of advisors bustled into a meeting with executive editor Doug Clifton to complain that reporter Dexter Filkins had unfairly linked her to another opponent of the pipeline and had neglected to give her credit for the bargain she had struck with the county.

Alonso also tends to react to negative coverage by accusing individual reporters, or the Herald in general, of being anti-Cuban. "It gets personal real fast," says another Herald reporter. Adds political consultant Phil Hamersmith: "She doesn't really understand how the American press works. She sees it as something to be controlled, which is ironically the same way communism views it."

If she senses a critical story in the offing, Alonso has been known to cut short interviews. She also has misled journalists -- about where she lives, who she has met with, even what papers she has filed with the city clerk. In dealing with New Times, Alonso and her staff have exhibited an edginess that borders on paranoia. "Who have you been talking to?" snapped Mary Wilson, her chief of staff, when first approached. Over a four-week period, New Times made more than two dozen requests for an interview. Wilson, Alonso, and Gary Siplin, her liaison to the media, all promised an audience would be granted. At Siplin's request the newspaper provided a preliminary list of questions, then a complete list. These elicited no response.

Alonso's office wouldn't even supply New Times with a resume or a schedule of her upcoming activities. The only definitive response finally came from Siplin. "We've got a problem here," he fumed the morning after two New Times reporters had interviewed several tenants living in Alonso rental properties. "We've got people from your organization harassing city officials and tenants trying to get negative statements. She's not going to comment."

Angel Maldonado's problems have been more acute. His weekly El Expreso, based in a strip mall off Calle Ocho, has been a dependable thorn in the side of los Alonso. In return, Maldonado says, Miriam Alonso's operatives steal his paper constantly. He suspects her supporters may be behind other acts of sabotage as well. "She is working for the Communist Party," Maldonado declares. "I helped her campaign by putting ads in my newspaper, but when I asked her for help in return, she never called back. That's when I knew she was a communist."

Maldonado stomps one white loafer for emphasis and folds his arms. A radio broadcast can be heard through the flimsy walls of his office. There would be a tendency, given the shabby look of his operation and his dubious leaps of logic, to write off Maldonado as a crank. But then, it was his paper that broke the story of Francisco Vidal, the old man allegedly beaten by Alonso supporters outside Versailles.

Miriam as Mayor
When it comes to forecasting Alonso's anticipated tenure as mayor, two schools of thought prevail. Theory one: Having achieved her goal, she will devote her immense energies to reviving Miami. Theory two: Absolute power will corrupt her absolutely.

Xavier Suarez stands somewhere in the vast, cautious middle ground. While he publicly announced a few months ago that he would endorse anyone but Miriam Alonso, he is sounding far more conciliatory these days. "The plus for Miriam is that she does her homework and puts in her hours," says Suarez, whose decision not to run for a third term solidified expectations of an Alonso victory. "But she's going to need to make a quantum leap in her m.o. to be effective. She can't try to function with too much power in herself."

"The word on Miriam," says one less diplomatic politician, "is that she's going to win on Tuesday and change the locks on Wednesday."

Supported by Miller Dawkins, Alonso will have a majority on the commission should her ally Alfredo Bared win his race against Wilfredo Gort. The scuttlebutt making the rounds at city hall is that she will use this voting bloc to pass an executive-mayor resolution and to force the issue to a voter referendum that could oust City Manager Cesar Odio, whom she once backed but has recently castigated.

Loyalists agree that Alonso will be, at least figuratively, a strong mayor. And such a presence, they say, should be welcome after eight years of listless leadership under Suarez. The vision they convey is that of making the city work again, of returning the construction cranes to downtown, and stepping up the drive to attract international trade. Of making the trains run on time. These grand ambitions may not directly aid her fixed-income aficionados, but they do befit the almost regal image Alonso enjoys along Calle Ocho.

Just as important, they befit the "new Miriam" her image-makers are marketing outside Little Havana: the no-nonsense technocrat with a firm grasp of infrastructure problems and trade issues. Shedding the radical label, or obscuring it when necessary, is part of Alonso's uneasy pilgrimage toward mainstream politics, a perilous journey that risks alienating her most fervent base of support -- the militantly anti-Castro core of Cuban Miami.

Still, to many young, upwardly mobile Cubans -- those who have embraced American culture -- Alonso's ascent has been viewed as a monumental embarrassment. "She personifies all that was wrong with the Seventies," asserts Richard Perez-Feria, editor of the bilingual magazine Miami Mensual. "The polarization and fanaticism. I mean, after twenty years, this is what we've learned? I do not want this woman to represent me. Neither do the majority of moderate Cubans. The problem is, none of my yuppie friends think politics affects them, so they don't vote."

This fissure within el exilio deepens when considering the subject of relations with Cuba. Right-wingers are overjoyed at the prospect of Alonso -- one of them ideologically -- leading Miami during the time they believe Fidel Castro will fall. Progressive exiles fear her posturing could inhibit the process of normalizing relations. "There is a growing recognition that there are certain needs Cubans have that the exile community may soon be able to solve," notes Francisco Aruca, a commentator on Uni centsn Radio (WOCN-AM 1450), whose business interests include licensed charter flights between Miami and Havana. "Sending remittances to family, visiting. The question is, do we want a mayor of Miami who contributes to this process, or interprets any attempt to help the people of Cuba as a political recognition of the government?"

Aruca sees grim signs. In March, after pro-Castro and anti-Castro demonstrators clashed outside Radio Mambi, Alonso recommended a ban on pro-Castro rallies. More recently she floated a short-lived proposal to rescind the occupational licenses of Miami companies that do business with Cuba. "What I see is a leader who still caters to the most racist, intolerant, fanatic segments of our community," Aruca says. "And that is playing with a powder keg."

Finally there is the predictable dispute over Leonel Alonso's veiled presence. "He is her partner, and together they are a stronger team," says Raquel Regalado. "It's like getting two leaders for the price of one, like with the Clintons."

Others see a dangerous alchemy. "They're both so intense and they just feed off each other," says former Alonso campaign coordinator Johnny Viso. "The result is that Miriam has no one to tell her she's full of shit." Adds a long-time politician who requested anonymity: "We used to joke that the Alonsos were like Juan and Evita Per centsn. But the fact is he's nowhere near as good as Juan, and she's far better than Evita. That damn pompous husband is Miriam's biggest liability."

The most shrill of the alarmists, understandably, is Victor De Yurre. Should Alonso forge a commission majority, he would be an utter outcast. "People may read what I say and write it off as a lot of B.S.," he allows, "but theirs is the same mentality that brought down a country in 1959."

"With her enemies, it is always the same lies," sighs Marta Flores, Alonso's friend the radio host.

Despite all the dissension, at least two prognosticators speculate that Alonso will rescue Miami from its torpor. "It's so easy to say, 'Oh, Miriam Alonso is a crazy who panders to extremists and abuses power.' But I also see a woman who's pretty brilliant," ventures consultant Phil Hamersmith. "She might analyze her faults and go around them. She might bring a new vigorous emotional leadership to a town that has gotten tired. She might just surprise the hell out of everybody."

"I think Miriam Alonso's election is a long-term benefit for Miami," says Boycott Miami leader H.T. Smith, who was unswayed by a 90-minute meeting with Alonso last month (and who has been incorrectly portrayed by the Herald as a possible late entry in the mayor's race). "We need that type of tragedy to have blacks, whites, and moderate Hispanics say, 'Oh no, we need to come together.' Her election will be equivalent to a human hurricane. We thought Hurricane Andrew was something. Hurricane Miriam is going to blow us away. We need something that dramatic to jolt us back on track."

Out of Exile
Those in attendance at the Miami City Commission meeting of October 18, 1990, would be hard-pressed to dispute Alonso's Force 5 potential. The scene, for all its heartsick, chest-thumping drama, might have played at the University of Havana circa 1955. The bodies were a bit saggier, the stage set distressingly antiseptic. But the rhetoric was vintage revolutionary.

Two hundred Miriamistas surged toward the commissioners, shouting insults, hurling wadded-up dollar bills symbolizing a political sellout. One woman spit at Mayor Suarez. An aide to De Yurre, after spotting an armed man in the crowd outside the chamber, locked herself in an office and flicked off the light. Another city employee fell to her knees and cowered. Chaos reigned.

The issue? The use of the phrase "Latin Quarter" to describe a cluster of commercial projects in Little Havana. It didn't matter that this development was, in scope, tiny. Nor that Alonso would later make peace with project organizers. For now the appellation was a slap in the face to all self-respecting Cubans, a repudiation of the blood and tears shed to build Little Havana. Over the previous week, Alonso had taken to the radio airwaves and whipped her army into a frenzy. Staffers had mobilized protesters and distributed signs.

And still Miriam's motion to strike the phrase from use had failed. De Yurre and Suarez, those traitors, wouldn't even offer a second. Now they were getting what they deserved A the unassailable bitterness of the dispossessed, the cathartic outpouring of a monster awakened.

As the revolt wore on, a more elusive image slid into focus, not of hysterical grandstanding but of one culture forcibly imposing itself onto a second. The trappings were all there: Street peddlers vending victuals outside. The commissioners' decision to address the crowd in Spanish. The sudden, liberating acceptance of a well-placed scream as political expression.

The noise was deafening, the aisles clogged with Miriam's apoplectic troops. None of this, however, discouraged an elderly couple at the rear of the room from edging their way through the crowd. He in a guayabera, she in a modest dress, they stood as archetypes of the viejitos who turned up at every Alonso event to pay homage. Together they drifted through the line of cops whose locked arms guarded the commission dais. The scene was familiar -- an unnoticed moment that revealed years of truth.

Miriam Alonso leaned over the podium, her famous smile gleaming. The viejitos moved closer, oblivious to the furor behind them. They spoke with the diffidence of trusting servants engaged in an historical drama. Miriam was not just their next mayor. She was the prophet sent to deliver them out of exile.

Staff writer Stan Yarbro contributed to this article
This is the second part of a two-part article



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