It was the shot in the foot heard round the world, and it will be replayed for years to come. There stood Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas at the federal courthouse on March 29, 2000, a day in which the very real threat of civil unrest loomed menacingly. A phalanx of television cameras focused on the mayor as he positioned himself at the center of a large group of civic leaders. Soon his words regarding the volatile Elian Gonzalez case would be broadcast around the globe. Surely this was a stage set for leadership.
A promising young voice in the Democratic Party, Penelas's ambitions for an even greater leadership role have been well-known, and they looked increasingly bright as he deftly built a governing coalition from the county's Hispanic, black, and Anglo communities, and as he nurtured his close ties to presidential hopeful Al Gore.
If ever there were an opportunity to forge an indelible image in the national consciousness, this anxiously awaited press conference in downtown Miami was it. Penelas approached the jumble of microphones and then proceeded to shock and alienate most of the nation with his now infamously defiant speech.
Never have opinions flowed as quickly and freely as they do in this information age. Within hours chat rooms, bulletin boards, and electronic news sites buzzed with commentary in response to the mayor's vow to withhold local police assistance should federal authorities attempt to retrieve Elian and to hold Attorney General Janet Reno and President Clinton responsible should blood flow in the streets of Miami.
The ease of Internet communication allowed people to instantly express their views directly to Penelas at email@example.com. As of April 5, Penelas's office had received 1146 messages regarding his speech; a majority of them seem to be locally generated e-mail. A total of 929, more than 80 percent, expressed anger and dismay at his comments, and used words such as shameful, irresponsible, embarrassing, foolish, inflammatory, appalling, unworthy, stupid, arrogant, disgraceful, shocking, cowardly, and dangerous. Roughly 90 percent of the messages appear to have come from non-Hispanics, but a small handful -- fourteen -- pointedly identified themselves as Cuban American.
An examination of the correspondence reveals several recurring themes: that the mayor's statements splintered the uneasy truce existing among ethnic groups in the county; that many felt disenfranchised because Penelas now seemed to represent only Miami-Dade's Cuban community; that he appeared to invite and endorse lawless anarchy; and that he would be held accountable at the polls for his statements.
A strong strain of betrayal runs through the messages, as a substantial number of correspondents had supported Mayor Penelas in the past. A strain of bigotry also was evident, with numerous Anglos demanding that Cubans return to their homeland.
On the positive side, the mayor found a few friends among Clinton-haters who applauded his defiance. Cubans and non-Cubans alike congratulated Penelas for standing up to the twin evils of Castro and Clinton.
In the interest of conveying as broad a sense of the opinions as possible, we have edited most samples below for length and clarity. In addition we have for the most part included only the correspondent's e-mail name.
My urge to flee South Florida grows hourly. Now that I know I have no local protection from lawless zealots, I should run to a federal building and demand asylum from Miami Cubans.
As a Dade County Commissioner and as a citizen of the U.S. I find it very disturbing that you have given the perception that Miami-Dade County's government would tolerate lawlessness, or be viewed as a place where an entire community would not be protected.
-- Dorrin D. Rolle
I cannot believe that a person of your intelligence and position would have been so irresponsible to encourage "civil unrest." There is a word for people of position who incite the masses to civil unrest. They are called demagogues.
I am finding it harder to bite my tongue and not denounce this area as a lawless country unto its own, even though my past, my heart, and my family all still live here. Every time you make statements like you did yesterday, or we as a county impale ourselves on the cross of Elian or Arthur McDuffie or Los Van Van or any of the others, we slip further and further back away from the places people actually want to live.
Until today I thought you had exercised reasonable restraint in this matter. Today you pandered to the basest instincts of a fanatical mob, and because of your position added fuel to an inferno in a way that few others could have done. As a leader of this community, you owed us better.
The situation in Miami is extremely volatile, and statements like that from our highest-profile politician do nothing but inflame the situation. Instead of imploring the Cuban community to act with dignity and obey the laws of the country they live in, you are fanning the flames of their passion. It's as if you are saying the Cubans would be justified if they do get violent if the feds come to take Elian out of his home.
Mr. Mayor, I beg of you, please don't inflame the exile community any more than it already is. I love Miami -- that's why I haven't left yet. But as understanding of the Cuban exile community as we (Americans) are expected to be, why isn't the Cuban exile community expected to have that same respect and understanding of us? Please, I implore you, ask the Cuban exile community to respectfully "agree to disagree" with their neighbors. Shouting, bottle and rock throwing (Los Van Van concert ring a bell?) does nothing but denigrate this fine country. Do Cubans have a different set of laws than the rest of Americans?
As a Nicaraguan American I feel that you don't care to represent my interests. While the county is mired in corruption, poorly run schools, sports arenas built at taxpayer expense, you choose to pick a fight with Washington. I'm sure you have better things to do than prostitute yourself to the mobs in Little Havana. Sadly I have reached the conclusion that if I vote for a Cuban politician, I would be wasting my vote, since they seem to be more interested in what happens in a foreign country 90 miles away than what goes on in our country.
Are Haitians subject to the same laws as Cubans? Would you prevent our federal government from repatriating others in an identical situation?
I am a 25-year-old man who came to South Florida from Colombia when I was 7 years old. At one point you were somebody I looked up to. I thought you were a man with a strong backbone who would do what is right for our community. Instead you are bowing to political pressure. Mayor, please remember this country is great because the law applies to all of us without exception.
There are other Cubans here who think [Elian] should be reunited with his Dad. Where is our representation?
My husband and I have been residents of Dade County for over 40 years and we have never been as angry or embarrassed at a speech by a Dade County mayor as the absurd speech you made yesterday. You are mayor of Cuban and Latins only, and the other residents of Dade County have no mayor.
I can assure you that if there is a recall movement for you, we will sign it immediately. We will also do whatever we can to ensure you are not elected to office again. We are totally appalled, angry, and humiliated by this situation.
I personally am not of Cuban descent. I am proud to be from the island of Puerto Rico. I would like to remind you, with all due respect, that you have an obligation to all the people of this county to make sure that all laws are obeyed. This is definitely not anarchy, and we should not be forced to accept the will of a few hundred Cuban fanatics.
Allow me to remind you, sir, that you are the mayor because an awful lot of non-Cubans voted to elect you.
Seeing as you have prostituted yourself in favor of the interests of one group of citizens, and seeing as you have condoned and in fact encouraged lawlessness and violence in our country, I respectfully request that you resign.
As you so aptly reminded all of us: "I am a Cuban first."
Fifty-year resident, voted for you, donated to your campaign, wouldn't spit on you now if you were on fire standing next to me.
Up until this incident I was a vocal supporter of yours, but now I am ashamed of your narrow-minded political pandering to a very small segment of the misguided exile movement.
Well, you can take the boy out of Hialeah but I guess even an Armani suit means you can't take Hialeah out of the boy. My God, Alex, what drugs are you taking? I will remember this in November. I vote, I have plenty of money, and I donate.
Alex, you owe the people of the U.S. an apology and the people of Miami some respect. Be a man and admit that you were speaking from emotion and not logic. I can understand your emotions. I have them as well. You are expected to walk a higher road, much higher than Raul Martinez, for example. Good God.
I voted for you, Mr. Penelas, when you were running for mayor because I believed you had principles and would not cater to the Cuban community only but to all citizens of this county, and that you would uphold the oath of your office. I can now see I was wrong. I will not vote for you again for any office you run for, and I am sure there are a great amount of people who feel the same way.
You have proven to be just another foot soldier of this sick and crazed machinery who specializes in stirring mass hysteria by exploiting the pain of the Cuban-exile community. It is a way of life for that group. But for you? Just by observing who was standing behind you [at the press conference], it was clear to me that you had basically sold out to powerful interests in this community.
I always thought of you and defended you as a moderate and rational voice in our community. Boy, was I wrong!
I am of Cuban descent and I have a lot of family still in Cuba. I am embarrassed by the Cuban community's blatant disregard of the law, and I am embarrassed by your statements in support of keeping Elian away from his father. I have supported you in the past but I will not ever support you again in any political office you may run for. I believe your statements to be irresponsible and thoughtless.
I want you to know that I have been extremely impressed with your professionalism, honesty, and intelligence over the last few years of your tenure. I felt that someday you would be an excellent candidate for governor or even president of this country. With your idiotic speech this afternoon inciting further community unrest and disrespecting the laws of this country, it is very evident that your loyalties are not to this country. I guarantee now I will never support you for anything. You disgust me.
You were completely irresponsible by stating that if the government of these United States sends Elian back to Cuba, whatever happens here in this particular city will be the responsibility of Janet Reno and the president of the United States. You know and I know this is an election year. And speaking of election, I sent your re-election $100. If the check has not been cashed, I will pay whatever the bank charges to put a stop-payment on that check.
You should lead as a responsible head of this city, not encouraging lawlessness, which in my personal opinion is what you did this afternoon.
I am sad that we have lost another promising young leader to the dirt of politics.
I can only hope that I am counting the days until we think of the name of Mayor Penelas as being as big a joke as that of Mayor Suarez.
The complexity of the situation notwithstanding, your comments yesterday regarding possible bloodshed and the official lack of county cooperation with federal agencies were appalling and represent a new low in local mob rule.
Your actions to hijack our police department are disgusting. When Hurricane Andrew came, it was the federal government that helped us, not you. You are now joining the mobs and sacrificing the safety of law-abiding citizens of this county. I am a Democrat but I'd rather vote for [Superman archenemy] Lex Luthor than for a divisive coward like you.
You are irresponsible. You are doing nothing more than catering to a cause that seeks to disrupt the city. By pitting yourself against the federal government, you are further tightening a noose around the neck of this already choking city.
I thought you were a leader with integrity. Now I see you for the pathetic, vote-grabbing, sensationalistic politician that you are.
You have sealed your political fate. You will never be elected to anything outside the Banana Republic. What an embarrassment for us all!
If you have any national aspirations, I hope your words of yesterday are played on an endless loop.
Your comments regarding the Gonzalez situation were unbelievable, your pandering to the Hispanic community apparent, your total disregard for the Constitution of the United States appalling, and your lack of respect for your non-Hispanic constituents and the federal government unforgivable.
Do you think for one minute that the intelligent, voting citizens of this community were not listening? For you to presume that we would stand behind you and thumb our noses when asked to uphold the laws of this country is outrageous.
May your future in politics be short lived for the sake of us all!
As a resident of Surfside, I just wanted to tell you I hope you enjoy being a politician in South Florida, because I believe your remarks yesterday indicating that local police forces would not interfere in the Gonzalez matter have put to rest any ambitions of a greater Florida or national position.
I was brought up in Miami prior to the Cuban invasion, and it was a much more wholesome place than it is today. There are too many Cubans living [in Miami], and if they don't like the way we do things in this country, then they should be repatriated.
The mayor doesn't want to uphold the law? Then he should return to Cuba and struggle against the regime on his own soil. That would be macho.
I support your stance in your refusal to be a patsy for the feds.
I read how you let Bill Clinton, America's first communist president, and Janet Reno, the attorney general and head of the Dept. of Injustice, know that your police department would not assist the feds if they try to return Elian to communist Cuba. Bravo!
It's about time people started standing up to the bastards in this administration. If we had real Americans in the White House and Congress, there would not be a question!
I write to support you and your recent comments concerning the denial of local resources to support the federal government in their planned removal of Elian. Please consider moving to the Republican Party, where you really belong.
We want to congratulate Mayor Alex Penelas for his valiant declaration on behalf of Elian. We are a bunch of old ladies saying "thank you." A thousand times. Keep up the good work.
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Of course, we are Cubans.
-- Faxed letter signed by seven people