The Autumn of the Matriarch

I've outlived the story, Estrella Rubio declares. She's already picked out the casket and ordered the flowers. Tulips will cover her coffin, along with dozens of red roses. The Miami burial plot she has selected is near her husband, two Cuban presidents, numerous ministers of state, and Cuban American National Foundation founder Jorge Mas Canosa.

During Rubio's long life she claims to have shot a man, married four times, witnessed governments rise and fall, faced down a killer, twice suffered exile from her homeland, attempted suicide, raised and spent small fortunes, staged hunger strikes, corralled countless votes for innumerable politicians, and faced arrests for her assorted activities.

Or so the tale goes.

She is 87 years old, sitting on a couch in the living room of a friend who has taken her in. Absent are the dangling earrings and trademark turban. A headband holds in place hair the color of faded mahogany. A frayed housecoat and heavy smear of makeup complete the ensemble. Her body shakes with a slight palsy. Within reach stands a metal cane.

It's late January, and Rubio took a spill at the beginning of the month, bruising her rib and her morale. In a few weeks she will turn 88. Nonetheless her mind is sharp and her memory vivid. Rubio's slightly wicked sense of theater also is still intact. Today she is angry, fearful, and defiant all at once.

I am planning to leave, she announces. Soon she will need a wheelchair, and this borrowed home, with its split levels, is impractical. As Rubio's strength and usefulness wane, many of her friends have disappeared. A settlement from a hotel accident and the inheritance from the death of her only son five years ago left enough to fund a move to Central America. There she can pay someone to attend to her needs. Anything to avoid the fate of a nursing home, a place full of crazy people, where the elderly are left to die alone.

"It's a horror to be old in this country," she spits.

Most politically aware Cuban Americans in Miami these past twenty years know of Estrella Rubio. In an easily recognizable voice, alternately sonorous and strident, she counsels followers and castigates foes. Until recently she had the ears of thousands. No exile activity was complete without her presence. Anti-Castro combatants knew if they were captured on a mission outside Cuba, Rubio would fight for their release.

In local politics she maintained a network of elderly citizens who provided her absentee ballots. By Rubio's own estimates, at the peak of her prowess she could bring in more than 1000 ballots. This figure is an exaggeration, many believe, but her voters helped launch the careers of Cuban-American political stalwarts such as U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and the Diaz-Balart brothers. At election time politicians fought for her attention, and radio hosts eagerly showcased her on their programs. In return for their votes, Rubio helped her followers resolve minor problems. More valuable still, she kept alive their dreams of a vanquishing return to the island.

Rubio and those for whom she speaks practice a Miami style of democracy that owes much to Latin America, even though its echoes of Tammany Hall and the immigrant experience are quintessentially American. Some call it viejo politics, for the large bloc of mostly Cuban elderly who fuel it. One prerequisite exists for welcome here: the shared, bitter fury of exile, the longer held the better. Particularly coveted turf includes the lunch rooms of public housing and the cafeterias on Calle Ocho.

"[Estrella Rubio] is the symbol of a way of doing things that is slowly dying away," notes former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferré, who has won and lost with this form of politics. (He has had Rubio as both supporter and avowed enemy during his long political tenure.)

Despite her insistence it seems unlikely Rubio will make her final journey to Central America. If she does, there will be few possessions to sell or bring. No car. No house. No furniture. What Rubio covets most are the faded newspapers, letters, and documents -- the touchstones of a rich past. But they are a poor complement to her memories and story. Kept in binders and envelopes, the papers only hint at what she has seen and done. Much of Estrella Rubio's compelling autobiography is difficult, if not impossible, to prove. Most of her peers have died. Those who are left largely verify the tales. Still there are elements that no one but those directly involved could ever confirm.

State Rep. Marco Rubio, who is not a relation but counts Estrella as a friend and supporter, acknowledges there is a natural tendency to exaggerate but insists, as many do, she speaks the truth. He also is acutely aware that her legend will continue to grow after she is gone.

"The 300-foot home run becomes 375 feet, but if you ask people who have been around, a lot of it is true," he says. "In ten or fifteen years, we will be talking about people like Estrella Rubio."

In the end Rubio's legacy will likely be as contradictory as the woman herself. Her traits include acute insight married to willful gullibility. She can be wry, pointed, and funny one moment, and strident and inflexible the next. Rubio desires only to be remembered as a selfless patriot for the cause of Cuba. But there is a dark side to exile activities and viejo politics that will follow her to the grave.

A bright light illuminated this shadow-world a little more than two years ago, when police charged 65 people with a massive voter-fraud conspiracy in the Miami mayoral election, and Estrella Rubio was among them. She ultimately pleaded guilty to a one-count misdemeanor for falsely witnessing an absentee ballot. Her brush with the criminal justice system and the harsh label of electoral fraud has changed her, she insists, even though she thinks it was all overblown.

Casting a more jaundiced eye at those who received her support, Rubio claims to have retired from politics. "I don't know [anymore] who are the good ones and who are the bad ones," she complains.

There are no more expectations of returning to Cuba, either. The island of her memories is long gone, she says. If Central America doesn't work, her niece lives in San Francisco. But then later she notes there is a mayoral election approaching in Miami. Several of those who aspire to the post have asked for her help.

Mother was a rebel without a cause, Estrella Rubio relates. She was a people's idealist.

The strong-willed and politically active Guillermina Benavente de Rubio gave birth to Estrella on February 8, 1913. The daughter inherited temperament and passions from her mother, as well as a fancy for the law. Benavente's husband was a wealthy local judge who had emigrated to Cuba from Spain. Years later Rubio also would marry a judge. "I was in jurisprudence since the day I was born," she likes to say.

The year of Rubio's birth coincided with the ascension of Conservative Gen. Mario Menocal to power on the island. His party held on to the presidency through fraud and violence until 1924. The Rubios' province of Matanzas near Havana would bear its share of the strife. Cuba's politics-as-war style of governance during this period was the norm, not the exception. Under the influence of the United States, much of the island's twentieth-century pre-revolution history was marked by political gang warfare, corruption, and even ritual suicide. Despite the chaos sugar kept the country afloat, and wealth increased, subsidizing the political gangsterism.

Rubio's mother, a fierce partisan of the Liberal Party, fought Menocal, favoring in his stead the party's Gen. Gerardo Machado. The local Conservatives tried to buy Benavente's support, but she was incorruptible, her daughter remembers. "[In my] town the Conservatives always won with trickery," Rubio says. "So my mother used trickery of her own."

On occasion Benavente sneaked into the fields of the mill owners, staunch Conservative backers, and set their sugar cane on fire. Attached to this likely oft-repeated tale comes a lesson for present-day patriots. "They say that they can't do sabotage in Cuba, but my mother found materials very easily," Rubio concludes.

Benavente's marriage to the local judge kept the authorities at bay. "Her husband loved her so; he forgave her everything," Rubio explains. Estrella Rubio would demand a similar obedience from her own husband. Judge José de la Fuente Hernandez spent the first half of his married life battling his wife and the second meekly following her. "She totally dominated him," says City of Miami Commissioner Tomas Regalado, who knew the pair.

It was love at first sight when she first met the judge in 1939. Rubio was 26 years old and already had a son and a Mexican ex-husband. She had even briefly modeled as a Jantzen swimsuit girl. "My face was the least beautiful part about me," she says with a smile. They married a year later. Soon after the wedding, Rubio discovered her husband's womanizing ways. After five years in which he proved incapable of monogamy, she divorced him. Within three months she had overcome her misgivings and wed the judge again. "He didn't have to say much," she says. "I was so in love with him."

The couple would divorce once more about the time of Rubio's first exile during the Batista years. Her anti-Batista activities couldn't have sat well with de la Fuente, who had many friends in the government. Nonetheless it doesn't seem like politics had anything to do with their breakup. Later Rubio's connections would help her husband escape the island under Castro. They remarried shortly after in Panama for the final time.

By the time Judge de la Fuente arrived in South Florida in the early Sixties, many of his Havana acquaintances would be living in exile alongside him. Miami's latticework of relationships included one of Estrella Rubio's first loves. In 1929 the seventeen-year-old Rubio had found herself a boyfriend in a thirty-year-old congressman from Las Villas. In true dime-store-novel style, the relationship came to an explosive end. The congressman confessed he couldn't marry her, for he had dishonored another girl whose father happened to be a military commander. The angry father had made it clear that the young politician would wed his daughter or die.

"I said, “If you can't marry me, you won't marry her either,'" recounts Rubio. With these words the impetuous teenager grabbed a revolver from the belt of a friend who stood nearby and shot at her lover twice. "When I saw the smoke he had already dropped," she recalls. While at least one person close to the family attests to the romance, the bloodshed cannot be confirmed.

The congressman survived and later went on to head the Cuban Senate. After the revolution in 1959, both would renew their friendship in exile, albeit platonically.

In the United States, Judge José de la Fuente Hernandez worked at the Fontainebleau Hotel. He died in 1988, a retired hotel houseman.

Fidel Castro is an evil genius, observes Estrella Rubio. Some people call him a coward, she continues in her vibrant radio voice, but she doesn't see it that way. "Do you believe that a coward would enter [Cuba] with [81] men against an army of 40,000?" she asks rhetorically. "Here we are two million and what do we do? What do we do? We make money."

In Miami Cubans from the generation of '59 generally fall into two camps. There are those who supported Batista. Largely they worked in the government or were among the very wealthy. Most of them knew from the outset Fidel Castro meant trouble. Then there are those who formed part of a large social movement against the regime that helped propel Castro to power. They saw a successful revolution snatched away from them. Rubio falls among the latter.

In 1948 Cuba held presidential democratic elections for only the eighth time since 1902, and as fate would have it, the last to date. The new president belonged to the Authentic Party, to whose ranks Rubio belonged. Four years later, when the party seemed destined to win another election, Fulgencio Batista staged a bloodless coup d'état.

Although her husband had supported Batista in the past, Rubio remained true to her defeated Authentic Party. Opposition to the new dictator grew, particularly among students. Rubio claims to have hidden guns and literature to support the rebels.

On the morning of December 7, 1955, Judge de la Fuente dropped her off at Guanabacoa women's prison to visit friends jailed for their anti-Batista activities. The week before, clashes between students and police had rocked Havana. Rubio had come to visit some of those captured in the previous disturbances. A group of university students arrived for the same purpose. They planned to attend a demonstration later that day and persuaded Rubio to accompany them to Maceo Park. At the park hundreds of students were confronted by the police when they set off toward the university. "We didn't have guns or anything," Rubio points out. "We were screaming, “¡Viva la revolución! Down with Batista!'"

The police opened fire. Students fell wounded around her. Nineteen in total were injured that day. "I was screaming, “Let's get them to the hospital,'" she says.

The crowd ran toward the university, but before Rubio could escape she was captured and taken to the fifth precinct police station. She gave her mother's name instead of her own to forestall a police search of her house.

While in jail she met the notorious Esteban Ventura, future chief at the precinct. A lieutenant at the time, he would gain an ugly reputation for gunning down revolutionary students. Although there is no mention of him in two local media accounts of that day, Rubio is convinced Ventura gave the order to shoot.

In her story she stands up to the infamous thug. When he came by her cell, she accused him of murder. He denied it. She demanded to see his pistol to smell if the barrel had been fired. When he refused, Rubio swore to him she would never forget his face. "He said, “Don't forget my name either. They call me Ventura Sabrosón [really tasty]," she relates. To this she claims to have retorted, "More like Ventura Cabrón [asshole]."

Fortunately some of the policemen were friends of her husband. They had her transferred to Guanabacoa. After a few days in jail, she was released. In March 1956 Rubio says she went to Miami to link up with anti-Batista exiles to bring weapons and funds back to the island. The worsening situation back home, including escalating attacks on the opposition, convinced her to remain in Miami.

And so began the first exile of Estrella Rubio.

Rubio used her sojourn abroad well. She worked with groups opposed to Batista and brought money from the island to Miami. In 1957, while Fidel Castro and his men fought in the mountains, Rubio purchased her first Miami home.

By December 1959, with the revolution's victory imminent, Rubio and other exiled Authentic Party supporters traveled to Guatemala, where they hoped to take a boat to the island. The regime in Cuba quickly collapsed, and the Guatemalan president flew the Cuban contingent to Havana on January 3. "I came down the stairs [of the plane] with the Cuban flag, screaming, “¡Viva la revolución! We have triumphed!'"

Disillusionment set in quickly. While initially many of Rubio's acquaintances, including her ex-husband, worked in the new government, as Castro consolidated power they found themselves increasingly marginalized. Friends in the anti-Castro opposition asked Rubio to collect medicine to take to the mountains. She purchased about 2500 antibiotic pills from a clinic whose staff promptly turned her into the authorities.

Rubio describes her arrest with dramatic flourish. "I threw myself on the sofa," she says, pausing to place her hand on her head, "artistically." In a quavering voice full of exaggerated pathos, she recounts how she tried to pass herself off as a fellow revolutionary. "What's happening?' I said to them. `Oh, I thought it was Ventura who had come for me. I didn't realize it was compañeros in the struggle.'"

The agents didn't buy it and hauled Rubio away. Once again connections saved her life. This time a friend of her husband in the Communist Party vouched for her. In exchange Rubio relinquished her passport to the Cuban authorities. Friends at the Mexican embassy helped secure her false travel documents. In the first month of the new decade, a plane carried Estrella Rubio away from Cuba for what would turn out to be the rest of her life.

I came to be a revolutionary, she says grandly. I came to continue to fight Fidel. In the official world of the United States, Estrella Rubio doesn't really exist. When she became a U.S. citizen, Rubio took her married surname and added Ivon in honor of Ivan the Terrible. Thus was born the legal fiction of Ivon Fuente. If she was going to be forced to live in the United States, she would do so as a warrior.

Along with most of her fellow exiles, Rubio always planned to return to Cuba sooner rather than later. She dedicated herself to preparations for the Bay of Pigs. She joined the Red Cross and offers a stained membership card as proof. Her hope to succor the invasion's wounded was not to be. The defeat of the April 17, 1961, mission sunk Rubio into despair. A few weeks later depression took control. While walking on a Flagler Street bridge over the Miami River, she threw herself into the water. Her suicide attempt failed miserably. The fall was not high enough to kill her. Rubio flailed around before a nearby boat plucked her from the river.

Once it became clear there would be no quick return, the Cuban exile community embraced a multipronged strategy against the regime. It included getting people off the island, plotting to assassinate Castro, and attacking Cuba's official presence in other countries. Rubio contributed to all these activities.

Using her contacts, she set up a business helping people leave Cuba via Mexico. She says those who vowed to fight the regime didn't pay for the service. For everyone else freedom cost about $100, she claims. In 1963 she bought a boat using her own money and funds she gathered from those who had recently escaped. The original idea behind the boat (dubbed El Pronto) was to ferry people out of Cuba. After a short while it took on a deadlier purpose. She gave it to the paramilitary outfit Alpha 66. In 1964 a group of men set out for Cuba in El Pronto.

"The news we got was that there was a beach where Fidel would go with just two bodyguards," Rubio relates. The group had hoped to overcome the guards and assassinate Castro. Instead they were captured and the boat confiscated.

That same year Rubio was arrested for the first time in the United States. She had joined a group of women who marched on the British Embassy. A newspaper photograph of the demonstration shows Rubio carrying a sign that reads, "Americans, English, Russians united to protect Castro." Police disrupted the protest and arrested the participants. Local politicians, including U.S. Rep. Claude Pepper, testified before a judge on their behalf.

Violence and the Cuban exile in Miami became intertwined in the early Sixties. The police regularly evacuated neighborhoods and closed down home bomb factories and weapons depots before the Bay of Pigs. Neighbors alarmed by the sounds of gunfire reported armed camps in South Dade. After the failure of the invasion, el exilio's belligerence moved toward attacking Cuban government personnel and installations directly. A more chilling component involved settling scores among the exiles themselves and silencing disagreeable viewpoints. Rubio actively supported many of these efforts, which both law enforcement and Miami's bewildered daily newspapers labeled "terrorism."

"I am not in agreement in the planting of indiscriminate bombs, but bombs directly against communists, yes, because the best communist is a dead one," Rubio still declares.

Her definition of a communist was sufficiently broad for her to justify the bomb attack on radio commentator Emilio Milian that cost him his legs.

Rubio says since bomb-throwing was largely a male occupation, she dedicated her time to raising money for the missions and helping those responsible when they were arrested.

Max Lesnic, an astute observer of his fellow exiles, terms Rubio "the godmother of fundraising" for her work during this time. Lesnic has known of Rubio since their days together fighting Batista. Today, among his other activities, he is the center of an informal salon of exile coffee drinkers where the name Fidel Castro is mentioned at least 100 times a day. "[Rubio] was always active in exile," he notes, "but she was used."

Lesnic offers the case of Henry Aguero. Born in Puerto Rico, Aguero had gone to Mexico in 1965 to kill the director of the newspaper El Día. The director had shown the temerity to editorialize against Cuban exile activities in his country. Ill-advisedly Aguero threw a grenade at the newspaperman's car directly across the street from a police station. He received a sentence of 30 years in prison.

Rubio maintained a correspondence with Aguero for seven years while he was incarcerated. "When I wrote to him in prison," she recalls, "it was like he was my son."

Lesnic believes Aguero was nothing more than a soldier of fortune paid by the exiles to commit acts of terrorism. "He was a mercenary, not a patriot," he says.

Rubio disputes this. In 1972 she used her own money to travel to Mexico in an attempt to free Aguero through her contacts. After being told the price for a lawyer who could do the job was $5000, she returned to the United States and raised the money, winning his release. Once out of prison, Aguero never had anything more to do with either Rubio or Cuba. "When he got out, I lost my son," she admits. "That's happened more times than I would like to count, but I don't like to talk about that."

She continued to raise money and spend her own funds for various exile actions. Then shortly after March 1972, Rubio took on a case that would lead to a major change in her life. On March 22 of that year, Luis Crespo and Humberto Lopez, two exiles involved in anti-Castro activities, were manufacturing explosives in a garage when one of the devices blew up. Rubio knew both men well. She heard the news while in New York City and quickly returned home. Both men were maimed. Crespo served five years in prison, and Lopez served seven.

"[While in prison] Estrella sent letters and held demonstrations on our behalf," remembers Crespo, who remains active in exile causes and has a late-night radio show. "She spent time with my children, helped with money, and even brought a cake to my grandmother."

He credits her with visiting political prisoners in the United States, Mexico, Venezuela, and Panama. "What is really admirable is that she has risked her own financial stability," he comments.

Rubio remembers hiding gifts of money around the Crespo house during visits, since the family was too proud to take it directly.

In her efforts to get the sentences of both men commuted, Rubio made a fateful decision: She volunteered in the campaign of a local politician. Many of her fellow exile fighters believed such involvement would compromise the purity of their cause. "At first in the Seventies it was almost a patriotic insult for [Cuban Americans] to get involved in local politics," says ex-Mayor Ferré.

The decision of Rubio and others to become citizen activists would mark a turning point away from exile and toward viejo politics.

It was my bad luck to support bandits, she says. Don't blame me.

By the late Seventies, Cuban Americans had begun to win office in the City of Miami and the state legislature. Rubio sought out Ferré, who was running for mayor, for help in obtaining an early release for Crespo.

The former prisoner and bomb-maker says he objected. "We have to be very careful to not involve ourselves in the political system of any country, because that brings with it obligations," Crespo insists.

Rubio only saw the promise.

Politics doesn't have to be separated from the revolution, she argues. "I tell them: “At the hour that they ask for favors, who signs the pardon?' The politician."

The Ferré campaign launched Rubio into the local political scene. Her mother and husband both volunteered to work in the re-election effort alongside her. Rubio and Ferré's grassroots coordinator, Lazaro Albo, says she was not paid for her work, at least not at first.

How much money Rubio has received over the years for her support of candidates is unknown. One politician who asked not to be named describes her as a "mercenary who works for the highest bidder."

While she will admit to isolated small payments here and there, Rubio maintains her work generally was not paid. Fellow campaign workers, politicians, and knowledgeable observers all seem to agree she has received occasional payments for her services. They also contend the sums were relatively paltry considering what she invested. "Some campaigns, if they had money left over, might give her $500, but compared to the time that she put in, it was nothing," concurs Charlie Safdie, who worked several campaigns with Rubio.

In 1985 Rubio dropped Ferré. "I asked him for a favor after working in three campaigns for him without ever asking him for anything, not even air," she complains bitterly. By this time she had lost both the house she bought in 1957 and another one purchased later, owing to the time and money she spent on her Cuba work. She and her immediate family were receiving public housing assistance. Rubio asked the mayor to help her get another apartment in a low-income housing development and when he refused, she placed him on her enemies list.

"That's against the law," explains Ferré. "She doesn't understand it, because in Cuba that was the way it was done." The former mayor sees a pattern with Rubio and others of her generation. Their political activities at times skirted the law because they brought a different set of experience with them. "She works on a Cuban paradigm in an American community," he notes. "Not only was it normal and accepted in Cuba, it was normal and accepted among the people she dealt with in Miami."

Rubio acknowledges that politics in Cuba were different. Politicians did not depend on campaign contributions and the conflicts this brings, she says. "[In Cuba] only the rich ran for office," she says. "They were landowners and wanted to be senator for the title. They didn't have to steal."

Soon Rubio was aiding a variety of politicians in Miami and Hialeah. She joined the Republican Party, where she continues as a committeewoman to this day.

"She helped me with the old people," recalls former state Sen. Roberto Casas, one of the first Cuban Americans elected to the legislature in the Eighties. He laughs. "Luckily she is my friend. If she doesn't like you, she blasts you."

Rubio already had become a regular on Spanish-language radio, where the talk shows, paid programming, and call-in programs are integral to viejo politics. Today the AM airwaves crackle with the soundtrack of a generation in decline. The stations know their audience and share its concerns. When not banging the war drum as loudly as possible, listeners of Radio Mambí (WAQI-AM 710) and La Poderosa (WWFE-AM 670) are treated to a slew of medical shows that promote clinics and peddle magical elixirs. "Those products that cure everything," jokes Rubio of one prominent host's fare.

Rubio is not kind to many of radio's top personalities. "They are not patriots," she complains. "It is inconvenient to these patriots for Fidel to fall. That will end Radio Mambí! What will they talk about?" Just the same, she still is a frequent guest on the 90-year-old self-styled "General" Manuel Benitez's show, De Frente, on Mambí. Despite his need for a walker, the irascible Benitez, a former police chief for Batista, fights on in a vituperative war of words waged against unknown communist callers. Together the two reminisce about events almost a century old as if they had occurred last week.

City of Miami Commissioner Tomas Regalado, who got his start in radio and continues in the medium to this day, remembers the first time Rubio called his show. It was in the late Sixties, and Rubio had gone with others to protest a Cuban government display at a World Expo in Canada. Somehow the Cubans had involved themselves in a fistfight in the picket line. While it was going on, Rubio called the Regalado show with live reports. "We had a ball," he recounts. "She would create the news and then report it."

He attributes her radio popularity to a commanding voice, a gift of expression, and the knowledge of how to ingratiate herself with the commentators. Her popularity also stemmed from small favors she would do for poor elderly Cubans who made up her fan base. If they needed help with the government, she would bring their requests to her political friends. Some of her achievements included obtaining a kitchen and roof repairs for the low-income apartment complex in which she lived.

"She had name recognition, and more importantly she had voice recognition," notes campaign worker Charlie Safdie. He saw this in action when he made an unsuccessful bid for state representative in 1994. Although his district was in Kendall, far from Rubio's strongholds of Miami and Hialeah, he enlisted her aid. He gave her a list of phone numbers of Hispanic elderly voters in his district. She called them cold. Safdie remembers how surprised and pleased she was that so many recognized her. "These people like Estrella Rubio have a book full of [voters] that they can call," he says. "A lot of them visit elderly voters throughout the year."

He compares the voter advice she gives to newspaper endorsements of candidates. "Are they voting because they are the best candidate, or because they trust these people who give them advice?" he wonders. "I don't know."

Safdie remembers Rubio driving around collecting absentee ballots. Her ability to bring them in would be her downfall. In 1998 she was charged as part of a voting-fraud scandal in the City of Miami. As a favor to a friend, she asserts, Rubio helped Humberto Hernandez's political machine elect Xavier Suarez city mayor.

One day while working in the office, someone whom Rubio cannot remember asked her to sign as a witness to an absentee ballot. Such a signature is a legal oath. But Maria Padron, whom Rubio supposedly witnessed vote, was not in fact present. Padron would later tell investigators that two men representing then-city Commissioner Hernandez had picked up her ballot. That was the last she had seen of it. Padron also told them she had never met Estrella Rubio.

Rubio claims the request for her to sign the ballot was not unprecedented and she didn't give it much thought. "We signed thousands of ballots for [U.S. Rep.] Ileana [Ros-Lehtinen]," she says.

Part of her cannot quite comprehend this incursion of the U.S. legal system into the norms of viejo politics. It seems awful small-time, she says, compared with what truly goes on.

When investigators came to arrest Rubio, she had just been released from the hospital following open-heart surgery. According to a Florida Law Enforcement investigative report, when the police told her why they had come to her apartment, she began to cry and activated her medical alert necklace. A fire-rescue unit arrived to take her to the hospital.

She is rueful of her involvement with Hernandez, who received a year sentence for the electoral fraud and four years for real estate fraud and money laundering. Despite obvious shady dealings, the handsome Hernandez was admired by the Cuban elderly. "Humbertico was loved but very stupidly," says Rubio. "He was a sweet, dear boy. I thought he was an honorable politician."

She made the same mistake with Al Gutman, convicted of federal charges of Medicare fraud, money laundering, and witness tampering. She had actively supported the state senator, who received a five-year prison sentence, in two campaigns.

Politicians don't fulfill what they promise, Estrella Rubio says. They go to the old people's centers. They ask for their votes. They give them kisses. Then they betray them and never return.

With the help of her cane, Rubio shuffles toward the converted maid's quarters where she sleeps. Increasingly both her audience and style of politics is fading. "No one will take her place," Regalado opines. "This is a dying breed. The new campaigns will be done in the media and will be more sophisticated."

Rubio's physical frailties make it almost impossible for her to collect ballots the way she did in the past. Many of her fellow exile activists, grassroots political workers, and politicians have abandoned her, she says. Rubio saw signs of their hypocrisy in the recent controversy over Cuban rafter Elian Gonzalez. The abundant gifts lavished on the boy offended her in light of the real need of so many children. Mostly she saw how people in the community eagerly embraced a symbol when their own neighbors went wanting.

"I have friends who lived a few blocks from me, and when I was ill and alone they would never come and visit," she says. "Yet they spent nights in front of [the Gonzalez] house."

She has turned down many offers to get involved with campaigns. Recently some friends contacted her to see if she would join the effort to put a new baseball stadium in Bicentennial Park. She describes these friends as working for the Marlins executive vice-president Julio Rebull, Jr., in an effort to sway public opinion. Rebull admits there is a marketing budget to promote the stadium but denies paying for citizen endorsements. "Some might think it's fabricated, but there is tremendous grassroots support," he comments.

Rubio refused to join the team and has called in to Spanish-language radio shows to argue against the proposal. "All the money of the Marlins can't buy me," she declares. "If they are so powerful, why don't they purchase the land themselves?"

As she walks toward her room, she passes a folded wheelchair leaning against a wall. She has used it on a few occasions, but Rubio is not ready to sit down for good. The world she was so much a part of continues, and its lure is strong. "She is getting into the mayor's race," confides Regalado. "I pity whoever she opposes."

Sure enough in mid-February she pitched candidate José Garcia Pedrosa on General Benitez's show.

A week later Rubio attends an Alpha 66 banquet in Little Havana with Pedrosa. She introduces the candidate to the aging warriors, some in camouflage. Rubio is a celebrity here, much more than Pedrosa. Everybody knows Estrella, comments one Alpha member as he watches her work the room. She pauses to take a furtive gulp of an admirer's beer and then continues promoting Pedrosa, lashing out at her enemies, and boasting of her exploits.


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