Stuck in the middle: Alvaro Fernandez tries to bridge the gap between Miami Beach and Little Havana
Stuck in the middle: Alvaro Fernandez tries to bridge the gap between Miami Beach and Little Havana

What Makes Alvaro Run?

Forget about smoke-filled backroom deals, angry convention-floor fights, or black-bandanna-clad anarchists running through the streets. Right now, on a sweltering August afternoon in mid-Miami Beach, the campaign trail is pretty uneventful. Alvaro Fernandez and his girlfriend, Patricia Bravo Segall, are working their way door to door up Alton Road, and the only drama so far is the sudden barking that has erupted from the other side of a tall hedge-flanked gate. Bravo Segall stops abruptly, balances her clipboard full of voter information, and nervously turns to Fernandez. "That sounds like a pretty big dog...." she murmurs, but Fernandez is already through the gate and bounding up the walk.

The front door opens and Bravo Segall and Kulchur are immediately facing off with a growling Doberman. Undeterred, Fernandez cheerfully zooms in on the curious homeowner standing in the doorway: “Hi, I'm Alvaro Fernandez and I'm running for county commissioner. There's an election in September and I need your vote.” Sure enough, Fernandez is invited inside; the now-pacified dog is satisfied licking Kulchur's hands.

There's endemic corruption at the airport and the schools need overhauling, Fernandez explains to the neatly dressed Anglo gentleman; what the county needs is new leadership. It's an eloquent pitch, received politely, but it's also becoming obvious this guy has heard it before. Fernandez downshifts with a provocative edge creeping into his voice. Being a leader, he continues, means standing up and taking positions that may not be the most popular but are the right thing to do.

“Such as?” asks the now-intrigued homeowner.

"I fought against the Cuba ordinance," Fernandez proudly answers, referring to the (now stricken) Miami-Dade law that barred county funds from any arts groups interacting with Cuba.

Bingo. The homeowner's eyes widen and he lets out a surprised “Ooh.” Fernandez touts his work as vice chair of the Miami Beach Cultural Arts Council, as well as his continuing belief in cultural exchange with Cuba. Impressed, the man is soon asking for some extra campaign brochures to give to friends.

The scene is a good metaphor for Fernandez's seemingly quixotic quest for the District 5 county commission seat -- a schizophrenic constituency that includes two communities that would seem worlds apart: Little Havana and Miami Beach (as well as the Roads and a slice of Overtown). Fernandez's opponent, incumbent Bruno Barreiro may have a war chest three times as large, a close ally in Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, and the support of much of the local political establishment, but Fernandez remains undaunted. To him it's all just so many dogs whose collective bark is far worse than its bite -- literally.

“I was bit by a dog out here just last week,” he offers good-naturedly, striding over to the next house. It obviously hasn't slowed him down. “My biggest worry is that people won't go out to vote. They'll say, 'Oh, two Cubans.' But these are two Cubans who offer two different distinct programs.”

Indeed. Both Fernandez, age 48, and Barreiro, age 34, may be Cuban Americans reared in Miami (Fernandez arrived in 1961 when his parents fled Cuba), but that's where the similarities end. While Barreiro, a Republican, is a member of the Cuban American National Foundation, Fernandez, a Democrat, takes a new approach.

“People are tired of politics as usual in Miami-Dade,” Fernandez avers. “You walk around this town and you hear people saying, 'I can't believe we lost the Latin Grammys, the Pan-American Games.' Not only are we hurting our stature with the rest of the country and our own cultural life, but also our economy. It represented millions of dollars to an economy that needs it.”

Shaking his head, he recalls the public flap this past May between Miami Beach exile-activist Victor Diaz and the Miami City Ballet. As reported in the Herald, alarmed over the MCB's executive director Pam Gardiner's stand against the Cuba ordinance, Diaz called Mike Eidson, president of the company's board. Eidson claimed he was warned that unless Gardiner was convinced to change her position, the MCB might suffer a Cuban-American boycott, as well a problem with its certificate of occupancy for its new building. “[Diaz] said, “I'm just saying that if you as an institution get involved in [opposing the ordinance], we will take these steps,'” Eidson recalled in the article. “Victor said they would take any steps they could to punish the Ballet if [the MCB] did not do what they wanted them to do.”

Last week the Miami Beach Design Review Board, which includes Victor Diaz, did indeed vote to deny the Ballet its certificate of occupancy. Ballet officials refused to comment, except to say they hoped to go before the board again in September. To Fernandez the incident smacks of blackmail plain and simple: “Do you know what [Diaz's] whole argument was? “It's not the right time.' Oh, there's a right time for free speech? Please!

Fernandez also is president of the Citizens Accountability Network, a League of Women Voters-affiliated group dedicated to weeding out civic corruption and enacting strong campaign finance reforms. To many, his opponent Barreiro is the epitome of why those reforms are needed.

The history of District 5 encompasses several of Miami's more colorful scandals. For the bulk of the Nineties, its turf was ruled by a well-oiled machine headed by Bruce Kaplan (elected commissioner in 1993 after predecessor Joe Gersten was alleged by police to have smoked crack with a Biscayne Boulevard hooker and re-elected in 1996) and aided by state Sen. Alberto Gutman. Charges of influence peddling and under-the-table deals circled both Kaplan and Gutman, finally coming to a head in 1998.

Kaplan was the first to fall, agreeing to resign from office after being found guilty of mortgage fraud. Gutman quickly moved to pick up the pieces, finding his new man in then-state Rep. Barreiro. (A widely criticized Gutman-brokered deal enabled Barreiro's family-owned Little Havana HMO to go from near-insolvency to a ten-million-dollar sale to the Physician Corporation of America. For his efforts Gutman received $500,000, Barreiro nearly $200,000, and Barreiro's father maintained a fifteen percent stake in the company.)

In a snap June special election to fill Kaplan's seat, Barreiro garnered only 4,237 votes. Owing to the election's summer timing and its resultant low voter turnout (a situation many believe Gutman's county commission allies were counting on), Barreiro's miniscule tally was still enough for him to win. (In 1998 District 5 had nearly 55,000 registered voters.)

Gutman himself was the next to go, charged with two million dollars in Medicare fraud -- a crime for which he's currently serving time behind bars.

The last man standing, Barreiro clearly seems uncomfortable in the spotlight. His public appearances outside his Little Havana base are few, while his county commission speeches often sound akin to a cell phone that intermittently cuts out: painfully long silences followed by strings of words in search of each other.

In the end though, none of this sordid background may matter. It's the subject of Cuba that likely will become the flash point between Fernandez and Barreiro as the September 5 election nears. Not because it's necessarily relevant to the race (“The county commission is not going to fix the problems in Havana,” Fernandez sighs. “There are other people elected for that.”) but because it's really the only issue that Barreiro can wield effectively.

He certainly isn't going to want to attract attention to his record: As a state representative Barreiro was widely considered something of a joke. As a commissioner that reputation has taken on embarrassing proportions. Last year's county commission debate over awarding a pay-phone contract to either AT&T, which offered Miami-Dade County $50 million, or BellSouth, which bid only $19 million, would seem a no-brainer. Yet there was Barreiro, laboriously stumbling through his speech on behalf of BellSouth. Finally BellSouth lobbyist Chris Korge jumped up to help explain just exactly what Barreiro was saying, adding a fresh twist on the notion of how certain politicians are little more than well-paid mouthpieces for lobbyists.

Nothing papers over corruption like a little Castro-bashing, however, and Barreiro is solidly in line with el exilio -- even if he's not always sure what that line is.

This past February, as the county cited the Cuba ordinance and threatened to rescind a $50,000 grant to the FIU Miami Film Festival if it screened the Cuba/Spain/Sundance Festival coproduction Life Is to Whistle, Barreiro took a moderate view. “Pure cultural exchanges should be permitted between the two communities,” he told the Herald, “as long as it doesn't promote Cuba or the current regime.” Two weeks later he'd flipped over into a hard-line stance, declaring that despite the film's harsh critique of present-day Cuban society and Fidelismo, “they can show it in some other city or state. If it's something that was made with the Cuban government's resources, then that shouldn't be seen here.”

Speaking on the phone with Kulchur last week, Barreiro still didn't seem quite sure where he stood on the matter. “That film is a film that came from a group ...” he trails off. After a long pause, he starts in again: “My understanding ...” Another long pause. “I'd have to look at what I said. That film is sponsored by the government in Cuba. I've heard it's not ...” Pause. “But now ...” An even longer pause. “You'd have to study the positions.”

Kulchur tries pitching a slow one: How would Barreiro feel about Los Van Van returning to Miami for an encore performance? “It would not be personally okay with me, but I have no say in the issue,” he replies, sensing where the conversation is going. “That issue is null because the Supreme Court decided,” he adds with relish, presumably referring to the court's view of Cuba ordinance-type laws as unconstitutional.

So it's okay for both local promoters and Cuban authorities to forsake their post-Elian skittishness and begin booking Cuban bands into Miami clubs again?

“[Cuban] bands don't want to play here,” Barreiro answers flatly.

Excuse me? This summer more Cuban outfits are on tour across the United States than at any other time since 1959, including Barbarito Torres, Omara Portuondo, Chucho Valdés, Bamboleo, Maraca, Cubanismo, and yes, Los Van Van. Yet none are performing in South Florida because they don't want to? “It's cheap in other locations. Here you have a lot of Cuban-American artists and bands that perform on a regular basis,” he explains, “but right now it's a cheap thing where there are no concentrations of Cuban populations. There's a bigger audience somewhere else for them.” So musicians hailing from the island are only popular with audiences deprived of exposure to Cuban-American singers? “They wouldn't get the same turnout here they might get somewhere else, because they don't have [Cubans] in some other locations, that type of music in their community,” he answers.

A ludicrous notion? Perhaps, although this zero-sum theory does help explain why Gloria Estefan's last album tanked on the Billboard sales charts. (Damn you, Buena Vista Social Club!)

Back on Alton Road the mosquitoes are coming out in full force, the humidity keeps rising, and Kulchur is preoccupied with picking the thorny remains of a pricker bush out of his hand. Yet Fernandez troops on with Bravo Segall at his side. Despite growing sweat stains beginning to darken his button-down shirt, he keeps hitting each new door and prospective voter with the same infomercial-like enthusiasm. Frankly it's beginning to get annoying. How on earth can he be so chipper? He must know the conventional wisdom: Voters on Miami Beach may be split but Little Havana will fall solidly behind Barreiro. Does he really think he can this win this race?

The Cuban community is not monolithic, he answers. “There's a lot of very decent folks who are fed up with what's going on.... I'm convinced I'm going to win. It's demonstrated to me by [Barreiro's] nervousness.” Recalling a meeting with a close associate of Penelas, he elaborates with a grin: “I had breakfast with Herman Echeverria, one of Alex's best friends. His question to me was, 'What will it take to get you out of the race?' That's why I'm running. They think money or a job will do it.... I've lived here in Miami for 40 years and I'm sick of all that.” (Contacted by phone, Echeverria admits he met privately with Fernandez but insists their conversation went differently. “I asked him why he was running,” says Echeverria. “Why all this aggravation if he doesn't stand a chance of winning?”)

Certainly Fernandez must be at least a little apprehensive about the presence of Armando Gutierrez as one of Barreiro's hired strategists. After all, this is the same spinmeister believed to be behind a string of vicious redbaiting attacks, as well as spreading false rumors of anti-Semitism -- actions for which the Fair Campaign Practices Committee once called Gutierrez #179;a blight on Dade County politics.#178; Most recently Gutierrez distinguished himself as the spokesman for Elian Gonzalez's Miami relatives, orchestrating the media circus around their home.

“I am not afraid,” Fernandez scoffs. “What are they going to say? Are they going to call me a communist? I grew up here, I studied here, I'm going through the democratic process. I'm doing what I came to this country for: speaking my mind and doing the right thing. There are people who have visited my parents here on the Beach. People that I know, so my father lets them in the door. They say, “Your son shouldn't be running. They're going to destroy him; they're going to bring out the Cuba issue. It's going to hurt your family.' Veiled threats, that's how they work.”

A smile forms on his face and he adds warmly: “My father may be an 82-year-old man, but he's not scared either. He said, 'If I was not afraid of Fidel Castro in 1959, you think I'm going to be afraid of these idiots?'"


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