Robaina is a 41-year-old BellSouth service technician who slugged his way up from small-town politics to the state stage in November 2002. Whatever you think of him, he's shown some political savvy along the way. When he ran for mayor of South Miami six years ago he wooed the Police Benevolent Association, whose union muscle and manpower proved essential to victory. Once in office, he made sure not to languish in the parochial shadows. He promptly pushed a law requiring gunlocks on all guns in homes with children. So what if the NRA challenged it and won? Robaina's little city made headlines. In 2002 the National Civic League and Allstate Insurance Co. named South Miami an "All-America City," beating bigger neighbors like Miami Beach. When Carlos Lacasa announced he was vacating his House seat to run for state Senate, Robaina moved in, beating out an opponent in the primary and then taking 86 percent of the vote in the general election. Once in Tallahassee he landed on two important committees, transportation and health care. He's ambitious, young, and likes to mix it up. He'll be around for awhile.

Readers Choice: Alex Penelas

What other clan could blithely carve out a new U.S. Congressional district expressly for an ambitious family member? That ambitious one would be Mario Diaz-Balart, the termed-out state senator and brother of Lincoln Diaz-Balart, self-proclaimed future president of Cuba. The Diaz-Balart boys' addiction to politics stems from a vein that runs deep in the family. Their grandfather and father, both named Rafael Diaz-Balart, were important members of the ruling oligarchy during the fearsome reign of Fulgencio Batista. The younger Rafael was deputy minister for the Cuban amalgam of the FBI and the CIA, as well as Batista's dreaded secret police. Perhaps more significant, the highly cultivated Diaz-Balart hatred of Fidel Castro is thicker than blood. El barbudo's first wife was Mario and Lincoln's aunt, Mirta Diaz-Balart, daughter and sister of the family patriarchs. ¡Esto es de pelicula!

Forget Howard Stern, the Jerky Boys, or Comedy Central's Crank Yankers. For sheer creativity the year's best prank telephone call came courtesy of WXDJ-FM (95.7) and Enrique Santos and Joe Ferrero, co-hosts of El Zol's El Vacilón de la Mañana (roughly: The Morning Blast). Piqued at being snubbed by Mexican President Vicente Fox, Fidel Castro had released a private phone conversation between himself and Fox -- and that was all the ammunition Santos and Ferrero needed. This past January they managed to ring up Hugo Chavez on his personal line, and, after hitting the play button on their judiciously spliced tape of that Castro conversation, lampooned the Venezuelan prez's notoriously chummy relationship with el jefe en maximo in a glorious fashion. "Did you receive my letter?" asks the disembodied Castro. "Of course I received it," Chavez replies, growing ever more confused -- yet still eager to please -- as the Castro non sequiturs start flying: "I'll do what you're asking me to.... I'm going to be harmed, I confess to you.... Everything's set for Tuesday." Finally Ferrero and Santos broke in with a few choice epithets, letting Chavez know he'd been pranked. Would that all our city's political satire were this inspired. Anyone have the number for Jeb Bush's private cell phone?

Founder and organizer of the Afro Roots Festival for the past five years, a regular hand at Rhythm Foundation world-music shows, and longstanding member of the traditional Cuban outfit Conjunto Progreso and the jazz group Mantra, Jose Elias just can't get enough of different cultural stuff. As anyone who has heard the ambitious occasional performances by his Afro-Polyphonic Space Orchestra or (later) the Afro-Polyphonic World Orchestra knows, he loves nothing more than fusing wildly diverse musical cultures, however chaotic, cacophonous, or simply beautiful the results. But still he felt that something -- or someone -- was missing. So this year Jose Elias added the Women and Culture Festival to his things-to-do list, putting together a slate of female performers and traditions from Africa, the Americas, and the Middle East. Thanks, Jose, for making sure that everyone has a chance to be heard.

Outhouse of mirrors. First drink: It's a fun house. Second drink: It's the ever-receding reflection of your sense of self. Third drink: It's the Versailles (the one in France, not Little Havana)!

For some reason that baffles us, a lot of local public servants don't seem to understand that the public's information is as precious as its purse. But Oliver Kerr, supervisor of the Miami-Dade planning and zoning department's demographic unit, does understand and sets the gold standard for info-currency. He represents Miami-Dade in the Urban Institute's National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, which is committed to "democratizing information" in order to help build "vibrant and sustainable" communities. For example, he brought it all home when the U.S. Census data for Florida finally came down the Internet pipeline last fall. Although he was deluged, not only was this twenty-year county veteran available and cordial but he provided the figures efficiently and quickly -- even to pesky reporters. They gave him the boundaries of a specific neighborhood; he gave them the stats on income, unemployment, housing, and the like. Kerr knows the formula. Information fuels knowledge. Knowledge is power. Obstruct the info flow and you abuse the power.

Residents experienced shock and awe when Miami administrators used public money to actually build something decent in Model City, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the nation's poorest city. This $3.5 million, one-story facility is so nice that even Commissioner Art Teele is proud to hold public meetings there at the Black Box Theater or the big new carpeted conference room. So are the prestigious board members of the Model City Community Revitalization Trust, who are planning an artful low-income housing renaissance nearby. A local homeowners association provided some of the pressure to make the community center a reality and now has an office in the building. Some people miss the old boxing gym that once stood on this land, but you can always find a garage in which to punch. You can't take swimming lessons in a garage, however, but you can do that at the Miller J. Dawkins Swimming Complex at Hadley. There is also a fitness center for kids of all ages and a walking track and aerobics classes for seniors. The center is open from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. weekdays; 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Saturday.

Year in and year out, this November fair demonstrates that South Floridians do have an appetite for intellectual stimulation. Over the course of a week, hundreds of bibliophiles trudge downtown to hear writers present their latest tomes, followed by the thousands who fill the streets around MDCC for the final two-day extravaganza. Organizers bring in nationally and internationally renowned heavy hitters in the realms of fiction and nonfiction, but also provide a forum for up-and-coming literary lights and for local scribes. Kudos are in order too for the growing Spanish-language program. We have high hopes for the 2003 edition, the twentieth anniversary, for which organizers promise lots of excitement. In the meantime we're keeping a close watch on what's cooking at the fair's new parent, the Florida Center for the Literary Arts. The hopeful expectation: more food for thought during the other eleven months of the year.

BEST REASON TO STAY IN MIAMI FOR THE SUMMER

Sultry nights

Summer in Miami can make you want to hole up like northerners do during deepest, darkest winter. We race between the cool comfort and the deep freeze of office buildings, malls, and restaurants. We shun our barbecues and stoves (who wants to stand over a hot piece of metal?) and our patios (too many mosquitoes). We curse those monsoon downpours that always seem to catch us when we're wearing good shoes and forgot an umbrella. Yet once the sun goes down, the heat and humidity that torture us in daylight meld to create a softness in the air that positively caresses the skin as you glide through the night.

As anyone who has schlepped from parking lot to parking lot on a "historical tour" of the city knows, history in Miami is written by the pavers. The Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts is a stunning exception. A show-stopper since opening as a silent movie palace in 1926, the theater was rescued from an asphalt fate by Maurice Gusman, who donated the palace to the City of Miami in 1975. Nearly 30 years later the simulated night sky atop the Moorish arches and turrets had lost much of its brilliance; the once twinkling stars had dimmed. Then a concerted effort by the county Department of Cultural Affairs and the Miami Parking Authority (which runs the theater) brightened up the place last year with a $2.1 million restoration. Additional work will be required to update the Gusman as a fully functioning, modern performing arts facility. But for now the theater's cloud-casting lantern is spinning again and a proud stuffed peacock is perched upon a Moorish balcony, a rare symbol of the Magic City's architectural memory.

Best Of Miami®

Best Of Miami®