The Sanchez Solution

In the five months that followed his miraculous arrival in the Magic City, Elian Gonzalez became the poster child of Miami's Cuban community. As American authorities moved slowly toward returning the boy to the care of his father on the island, a diplomatic, political, and intensely emotional crisis erupted. Media hordes descended and to exiles, Elian morphed into a mythical character in the struggle against Fidel Castro. The turmoil surrounding the six-year-old's imminent departure cast into the limelight another figure, a man who has in many ways become the face of Miami's exiles. His name is Ramon Saul Sanchez and he is the 45-year-old leader of the Democracy Movement (Movimiento Democracia).

Unlike Elian, he will be staying.

In recent days Sanchez has appeared in the news almost as much as Elian himself. The handsome mustachioed man with a slight Cuban accent has spoken in measured tones to audiences of CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC, and a host of foreign networks, as well as the Times of London, the New York Times, and the Salt Lake City Desert News. As spokesman, strategist, supervisor, and spiritual leader for the contingent of exiles camped outside Elian's temporary home in Little Havana, he has inspired, pacified, and coordinated preparations to thwart any attempt by authorities to seize the boy. Perhaps more than anyone else, he has kept in check the violent leanings of the Save Elian coalition, which includes a continuum of groups from liberal-minded critics of Cuban socialism to Castro-loathing zealots.

After Elian's dad, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, arrived in Washington, D.C., last week and delivered an emotional appeal for the return of his son, the keep-Elian resistance began to unravel. U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno insisted to a national audience that the bond between father and child must transcend political antagonism. And on Friday, just before a ballyhooed demonstration was slated to block rush-hour traffic at Miami International Airport, Sanchez called it off. "We have lost the battle," he conceded. This past Monday the Democracia leader and several thousand people gathered near the Gonzalez home for anti-Castro speeches and save-Elian prayers. As of press time, exile leaders seemed resigned to leave the boy's fate in God's hands.

During three decades in Miami, Sanchez has played a significant role in creating a uniquely Cuban-American form of protest somewhere between Yippie and Peronista. His arsenal has changed from guns and bombs to flowers, flotillas, hunger strikes, and human chains. He was thirteen years old when he left Cuba in 1967, and at age sixteen he joined the anti-Castro paramilitary group Alpha 66 for a year. He then enlisted with another violent group, the Organization for the Liberation of Cuba, but prefers not to discuss its activities. In 1982 Sanchez was subpoenaed by a grand jury investigating Omega 7, yet a third bellicose anti-Castro collective that claimed responsibility for killing an attaché to Cuba's United Nations mission in 1980 and for more than 30 bombings in New York and Miami in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Sanchez refused to testify and spent four and a half years in prison for contempt of court. By the time of his release in 1988, he had embraced civil disobedience as the only moral way to fight for democratic change in Cuba.

During the Nineties he waged a campaign of symbolic anti-Castro activities with as much zeal as a paramilitary commando, but with far more media coverage. His main tactics: traffic tie-ups in Miami to protest Washington's Cuba policies, which he viewed as too lenient, and several forays into Cuban waters on sport-fishing boats to drop flowers and raise pro-democracy banners. When the U.S. Coast Guard seized one his group's boats in 1998, he waged a hunger strike to get it back. U.S. officials returned the craft in exchange for a promise from Sanchez that the boat would not leave the United States again until a federal judge ruled on the seizure's legality. Last summer he sat down on a bridge on the MacArthur Causeway and sparked several days of traffic snarls that helped persuade the INS not to repatriate a boatload of Cuban refugees. Then last fall, on Thanksgiving Day, Elian appeared.

In a way Sanchez's rise was made possible by the 1998 death of Jorge Mas Canosa, the founder of the Cuban American National Foundation. The differences between the foundation and Democracia are stark. CANF's clout is derived from money and political connections in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C. Democracia's strength lies in its ability to defy the power structure and unnerve authorities by mass, nonviolent political theater.

Like Mas, Sanchez wields influence with the political elite. But unlike the deceased Cuban leader or his son and heir, Jorge Mas Santos, Sanchez employs a kind of working-class charisma and thoughtful manipulation of large crowds to deliver his message. As Elian protests heated from simmer to full boil recently, New Times tailed Sanchez for a week and watched him play a panoply of roles: Cuban exile spokesman, protest organizer, passive-resistance guru, rumor-control agent, and spiritual leader. The man whose feisty followers call him Ramoncito is part urban Thoreau, part Cuban Gandhi, and part populist caudillo. "We struggle for human bodies," he says, "not for ideologies."

March 29, 9:00 p.m. The outpouring to save Elian from the clutches of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service is reaching a new zenith at the intersection of SW Eighth Street and 22nd Avenue. The event is dubbed "The Cross," both to make a religious statement and because, viewed from above, it appears as if several thousand people have gathered on the pavement in this shape. The crowd listens as the mesmerizing voice of Francisco Santana, a priest from Our Lady of Charity Church in Coconut Grove, emanates from loudspeakers. His sermon soaks the Elian saga in biblical images. He compares the conflict among Cubans to the crucifixion of Christ. "The Cuban people are on the cross of their own pain," Santana laments, "a long, sharp pain that cries out from their forsakenness." He likens the rescue of Elian to that of the baby Moses and then carries the metaphor a step further. "Father protect Elian again," he continues. "Don't allow the hatred of men to drown him now or the symbol of liberation to be transformed into an instrument of slavery."

Ten blocks away Sanchez is outside the Gonzalez house, holding vigil should federal agents arrive to commence the enslavement process. He and several dozen demonstrators are standing in front of the waist-high metal barricade that seals off NW Second Street halfway between 23rd and 24th avenues. The one-story home of Elian's relatives is ahead of them and off to the left; a row of white canopies covering TV crews and equipment lining the south side of Second Street is on their right. As police officers watch, the demonstrators push over the barricade, jog to the gate of the house, and link elbows.

Sanchez's human-chain tactic is a perfect linkage of rage and reason, and he is quite aware of its strengths and weaknesses. "If they want to come in and take Elian they can do that, and neither the family nor we are going to be able to do a lot to maintain him here," he admits. "The only thing is the cost to [the government] in terms of public opinion [having] 20 or 30 marshals coming in to take away a child by force who doesn't want to go. He's going to start kicking and yelling and crying." And it would take many law enforcement officers to break the chain, he adds. "But it is more symbolic than anything. It's to show how united everybody is." It would also allow protesters to blow off steam without hurting anybody.

Arguably the INS might have attempted to send Elian back to Cuba much sooner were Sanchez not around. "Our involvement came about because he was going to be sent back without due process of law," he says. "So when we heard that we said, 'Okay, you can't do that.' We started the original civil-disobedience campaign that basically made the government stop and allow time for the legal process to begin. Civil rights are fundamental for us, for the movement, and we will fight for them."

It is a busy night in Elianville. Many who attended The Cross event have dropped by the vigil outside the Gonzalez home. Marisleysis is at the barricade smiling and greeting protesters. The two fishermen who rescued Elian, Donato Dalrymple and Sam Ciancio, are nearby, talking to reporters and basking in the glory. Jorge Mas Santos, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, puts in an appearance. Dressed in a navy-blue suit and tie, he chats with a group of men in front of the Gonzalez house. Then he approaches the barricade and addresses the crowd, urging them to embrace Elian's cause but follow the law. He lacks the magnetism of Sanchez, and many listen unenthusiastically.

Soon Mas Santos leaves without speaking to Sanchez, who declines to comment on relations with other exile organizations. When asked whether Democracia and the foundation cooperate during such crises, he replies, "They don't." He refuses to elaborate other than to say, "We have different views."

But it is clear Sanchez has won the hearts and minds of the most devoted protesters. About 11:00 p.m. he is still talking to journalists and demonstrators. Some who have grown weary are heading to bed. "Ramoncito, Ramoncito," says an elderly man. "We're going home to conserve our energy."

Sanchez's girlfriend, Lourdes Eire, comes by to say hello. "Are you tired?" he asks her. "Are you bored?"

Eire, who is 31 years old, twice says no and leans on the bumper of a nearby van. A little later a woman who has just finished work approaches Sanchez and says she's planning to remain all night. "You want to stay here? That's great," he says. "We need people."

At 1:00 a.m. Sanchez decides to head home. In five hours he must be awake for an interview on a local radio program. He has taken a leave of absence from his $30,000-per-year job as a clerk at a nonprofit company that builds low-income housing in Little Havana. As Sanchez passes the corner of SW Second Street and 24th Avenue, a young stocky woman stops to chat. Her voice is hoarse from chanting slogans. "Get some rest," he counsels her. Then Sanchez and Eire climb into his white 1994 Suzuki Sidekick.

March 31, 6:30 a.m. Sanchez begins his day with a telephone interview on Argentine radio, just another in a seemingly endless stream of appearances on local, national, and foreign news. The INS has extended Elian's parole for several days to allow for continued negotiations with Lazaro Gonzalez and his lawyers. Sanchez has slept only fifteen hours in the past five days and he is exhausted. After a quick lunch, he rushes to North Miami for a television debate. At 12:30 p.m. he wheels his Sidekick into the parking lot of Channel 2 (WPBT-TV).

He is here to discuss the Elian matter on Issues, a public-affairs program hosted by Helen Ferre. To economize his time, Sanchez also has arranged to meet three men and a woman from NDR, a German TV network, for interviews before and after the show. When Sanchez walks into the WPBT lobby, producer Mary Lou Losada, nattily dressed in matching gray blazer and slacks, greets him and leads him down sterile corridors to a conversation-filled lounge occupied by other guests, including Miami Today publisher Michael Lewis, Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel editorial board member Doug Lyons, and family-law attorney Brenda Shapiro.

In the on-air debate that ensues, Sanchez is outnumbered 3-1. Ferre gives Shapiro the opening salvo. "The law of the United States has spoken through its attorney general," the lawyer begins. "And her decision was that only the father could speak for the boy. And given that, yes the boy should be returned to his father...."

Sanchez returns this volley: "Elian has the right to be heard by a court of law ... that can take into account the environment where he is going to be sent back, how the father treated him before, and what exposure to Castro's oppressive regime he's going to have in the future...."

Ferre follows up with a tough question: "Aren't the natural bonds that link parent and child paramount in this case?"

"Of course," says Sanchez, "and the ideal solution for this problem would be for the parent to come here and visit the relatives, for them to get together, all of us out of the picture -- the Cuban government, the U.S. government, the exile community, the media -- and let them resolve the issue of what's in the best interest of the child."

Lyons and Lewis weigh in, calling the Elian affair "a circus" and questioning the boy's ability to decide his own future. Then Ferre asks Sanchez how he and his organization would respond if the INS proceeded with plans to return Elian to his father's custody.

"We are waiting to demonstrate in a nonviolent way and to make sure the Constitution of the United States and the rights of the child are upheld," Sanchez explains. He reiterates his assertion that a court must weigh Cuban repression against the father's custody rights. Shapiro contends Elian's Miami relatives have already had their day in court. "I disagree," Sanchez replies.

After the broadcast, as they head out of the building, Shapiro informs Sanchez that no family court will give much credence to the opinions of a child under the age of twelve. "I deal with custody issues every single day," she tells him. "It's a nightmare." Sanchez just listens politely. They shake hands in the parking lot, where the German TV crew is waiting to interview the Democracia leader in the shade of a tree. The producer, a tall short-haired blond woman, unleashes a new round of interrogation. "You know your critics are accusing you of being cold warriors who are using a six-year-old child for your political interests." Sanchez responds with a bizarre answer that would likely have raised eyebrows among the Channel 2 panel. "The issue here is we are the victims of [the Castro] regime and that child is also the victim of that regime," he says. "The issue is that if [Elian] were returned to Cuba, Castro ... has even said that he's going to put him in the hospital to deprogram him. We know what deprogram means in a totalitarian regime. [Elian] is going to suffer psychologically. And if he cannot be programmed according to Castro's beliefs, he will be made to disappear. It's not partisan politics. It is a human struggle for essential human bodies and human rights."

After another half-hour, Sanchez shakes hands with the German crew and heads back to check on the vigil outside the Gonzalez home. "You know, it's a relief to me to go over there and see things calm," he says.

This Friday afternoon is sunny, and the protest has the feel of a tailgate party. About 50 demonstrators are on the west side of the barricade across NW Second Street; a host of TV crews are abuzz under the row of canopies on the east side of the barrier. Sanchez is soon on the phone for a brief interview with anti-Castro AM-radio personality Tomas Garcia Fuste.

Sanchez had hoped to drop by his Little Havana office, but he is due at the Democracia headquarters on SW Eighth Street in West Miami-Dade.

March 31, 5:00 p.m. Back in his Sidekick, Sanchez heads across town to pick up Democracia press secretary Felipe Rojas and then drive to the group's office. "I'm almost an ignorant man," Sanchez says when asked about the origins of his nonviolence. He says he cannot claim to be a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi or other notable practitioners of the strategy. "If I told you I learned the method I use from anyone I would be lying." He doesn't have time to read, he says. "I'm just a working man. The only thing I own on the face of the Earth is this vehicle. And clothes. But I don't like those too much. The media wants you to wear a suit. And I only own this [car] to move around."

He pulls over in front of a one-story house and Rojas climbs into the vehicle. Rojas, who is 54 years old and came to the United States in 1960, is a supervisor at a Miami-Dade County facility for domestic-violence victims. His family has serious anti-Castro credentials. His brother, Pedro, was captured during the Bay of Pigs invasion and suffocated along with nine other prisoners while being transported in the back of a truck. Another brother, Ivan, is in a North Carolina federal prison, serving time for trying to smuggle machine guns and explosives into Cuba in 1993.

"Did you hear last night what [Gonzalez family lawyer] Kendall Coffey said about Elian's father?" Rojas asks, referring to Coffey's allegation that Elian's father, Juan Miguel, told the boy his mother was alive in Cuba.

"Oh yeah, yeah," the Democracia leader replies.

"That's terrible," says Rojas.

A few minutes later, Sanchez pulls into the parking lot of a strip mall on the south side of SW Eighth Street, just west of SW 81st Avenue. He and Rojas walk up a flight of stairs to a small second-story office with three rooms. This is Democracia headquarters.

A grinning José Garcia-Taboada, the group's historian, greets his colleagues. Sanchez and Rojas sit at two desks placed side by side toward the back of the main room. On the wall behind them hangs a red, white, and blue Democracia banner. Sanchez logs on to Democracia's Website (www.democracia.org) and complains about how slow his computer loads. To his left, on the west wall, are a large portrait of José Martí and three smaller ones of prerevolutionary Cuban leaders Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, Ignacio Agramonte, and Maximo Gomez. Next to them are photographs of Thoreau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. On a bulletin board on the east wall is the famous shot of the lone Chinese student standing before a column of tanks during the Tiananmen Square rebellion.

Sanchez says his organization has 16,000 official members and thousands of supporters. Founded in 1988 as the National Cuban Commission, the group adopted a new name in 1995 after Sanchez coordinated a demonstration at sea. When the lead boat, Democracia, entered Cuban waters, it was promptly rammed by two patrol craft from the island. The incident was recorded on videotape, and when it hit the television news in Miami, exiles thought the name of the vessel and the group were the same. Sanchez went with the flow.

Near the door is a small impressionistic drawing of a wave-swept powerboat in high seas. The work, titled Intento de Penetración en Cuba (Attempt to Infiltrate Cuba), was drawn by Democracia member Pablo Correa after foul weather thwarted a protest voyage in late January 1998. Correa, Sanchez, and three other members were aboard the vessel, named Human Rights. Twelve months later the U.S. Coast Guard seized the Human Rights as Sanchez and several others again prepared to head for Cuba. "We were going to distribute leaflets," Sanchez explains, "copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

In 1998 Democracia sent an unmanned raft with a large balloon tethered to it into Cuban waters. The raft was remote controlled and the balloon had the group's name on it. Sanchez asserts it was visible from Havana for a few days before Cuban authorities took the air out of the protest. "We've managed to change the image of the Cuban exiles," Sanchez asserts. "You know [the image] that these people are Batista supporters and supporters of the old regime."

At about 6:00 p.m., a polite, jovial man with a baritone voice comes in. He is Obie Usategui, the president of Poly Ply Corporation, a plastic-wrap manufacturer. He shakes hands with Sanchez and they sit down. It is their first meeting. Usategui has an idea: a protest with motorcycles. He is a member of a club and knows the leaders of ten such groups who want to help Elian to stay with his Miami relatives. He figures at least 1000 bikers could be mobilized.

"The idea is magnificent," Sanchez says. But he has some concerns. "We have boats, we have planes, and we have trucks that we use in our demonstrations," he continues. "And the person who coordinates [each protest] is from Democracia. Because we don't want to do something that is going to result in chaos. But perhaps one day we can do it." Usategui nods in agreement and suggests that he assemble a list of motorcycle-club leaders. Sanchez repeats his enthusiasm and reservations: "I don't want to do anything chaotic, because that is how we will lose respect." Usategui says he understands and quickly departs.

In a few minutes Sanchez's cell phone rings. It is a Democracia member stationed at the protest vigil outside the Gonzalez home. Sanchez listens for a minute, then hangs up. He has some alarming news: Members of the Antonio Maceo Brigade, a local pro-Castro group, are protesting on SW Eighth Street in Little Havana. He grabs a beige megaphone and jogs down to his car with Rojas. Sanchez is worried the demonstration could spark exiles' wrath. "They [the Maceistas] are provoking violence," Sanchez says quietly as he drives, trying to rush despite stoplights and heavy traffic. He has 60 blocks to travel. The phone rings again and Sanchez answers. He pauses. "Hi, my love," he says softly in Spanish. "How are you feeling?" It is Eire calling from the Gonzalez house. He insists she stay away from the pro-Castro protest. "I don't want you to go over there," he admonishes. "It could make matters worse." He hangs up and manages to steer, hold his cell phone, brake at a red light, shift gears, and pull from his wallet a business card for Miami Assistant City Manager Raul Martinez. He dials the number and leaves a voice mail. "I need to speak with you urgently," he says. "I haven't seen anything yet, and I don't know if it's true, but apparently the Maceistas are demonstrating at Eighth Street and Twentysomething."

Martinez calls back in about five minutes and says he'll relay the message to Police Chief William O'Brien. They hang up. "This is a serious problem," Sanchez says. "A demonstration at night. How strange. It seems like a provocation."

In a few more minutes, the traffic has thinned out and the Sidekick finally enters the protest vicinity. Sanchez decelerates. The streets are all but deserted. As he passes SW 27th Avenue, the phone rings again. It is O'Brien. "Yes, sir. I'm in the general area right now, but I don't see anything," Sanchez tells him, looking left and right as he crosses 22nd Avenue, then 20th. "I'm cruising down Eighth Street right now but I don't see anything. To [demonstrate] like that right now would be crazy." He pauses to listen to O'Brien, then continues: "Yes, they also have the right [to protest] but I was afraid the way spirits are right now, I wanted to make sure [there was no violence]." He thanks O'Brien and hangs up.

Sanchez places another call as he takes a left on to SW Seventeenth Avenue and then another left on to SW Seventh Street, heading toward Elian's house. He's trying to track down the source of the false rumor. "Who [reported the protest]?" he demands. "Jorge Gonzalez?" Gonzalez is coordinator of a small exile group, Movimiento para la Dignidad del Pueblo Cubano (Movement for the Dignity of the Cuban People). This group is one of the most vocal at the vigil outside the Gonzalez home.

As Sanchez turns north on to SW 22nd Avenue, Rojas recalls a rumor that someone phoned in to Democracia headquarters one day earlier: Fidel Castro was so sick that doctors and nurses were flying in from outside Cuba. The pair speculates pro-Castro operatives could be circulating the rumors to create unrest.

The phantom-protest incident illustrates the extent to which Sanchez has drawn city officials into the drama around Elian Gonzalez. "Like a number of leaders, he has the potential to defuse or accelerate a situation," observes O'Brien. "That's why it's important to have a good working relationship.... I've known Sanchez for several years. He's a good man."

April 3, 6:00 p.m. On this night U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Miami Mayor Joe Carollo, Lazaro Gonzalez, a Catholic priest, and Miguel Saavedra, the bombastic leader of the Vigilia Mambisa exile group, will speak in Elianville. But Sanchez will carry the evening.

While Saavedra rants into a microphone connected to a speaker that transforms his words into a deafening and distorted barrage of syllables, several people stretch out an eight-by-fifteen-foot Cuban flag, as if waiting to catch someone falling from above. Saavedra announces plans for a protest later in the week outside Janet Reno's Kendall home. Then he begins to chant -- " Zero votos democratas! Zero votos democratas! Zero votos democratas! ("No Democratic votes!") -- and several dozen demonstrators join in.

Sanchez keeps his distance from the mob. This evening he spends mostly inside the cordoned area in front of the Gonzalez home talking on his cell phone to journalists and Democracia members and chatting with several men who are wearing blue Cuban American National Foundation caps. "Things are a little tense," he says. At about 6:30 p.m., he retreats to his Sidekick for some silence to conduct an interview with La Poderosa (WWFE-AM 670).

Just after nightfall Sanchez approaches the crowd. A barricade separates him from the frontline. After talking casually with a few of the of demonstrators, he swings one leg over the rounded metal barricade, straddling it like a horse. Saavedra is leading another chant, " Libertad! Libertad! Libertad!" but soon his speaker falls silent. Sanchez looks out over a crowd of about 200 people. Someone holds a sign that reads, in Spanish, "Clinton, Gore, and Reno are Communists. No to the Democratic Party." Another sign bears the visage of Janet Reno with a Hitleresque mustache. Others proclaim: "End the Cuban Holocaust" and "Clinton-Gore-Reno, you are guilty of treason. You are nothing but Castro's puppets. You all go to Hell." What is Sanchez going to say to people who are prone to such hyperbole?

"We need the protest to be energetic," he commands in Spanish. "It is critical, very, very critical, that everyone who can stay here all night do it. It's critical. And tomorrow come early in the morning. Please ask for the day off. It's critical that we remain here today, tonight, and tomorrow." He then shifts gears and launches into spirited oratory.

"The moment of truth has arrived," he exclaims, speaking louder. "Listen well. We have never failed and we are never going to fail. We are always going to be with you. And we are going to be forming [human] chains when we have to and going to jail when we have to. It is very important to know where we are going and that we have a direction. This is not chaos or a riot. This is about the dignity of a people who have decided that the civil rights of its children are respected, and who are tired of 41 years of oppression."

Then he adds: "But anyone who raises a stone or a fist in hatred is raising them against [Elian]." He continues for another ten minutes, fueling the crowd's desire to prevent the INS from removing Elian, then demanding that people not act violently. "There is nothing uglier than a riot," he tells them.

And then it is time to review.

"Are we prepared to face the final consequences of this fight to protect the civil rights of the Gonzalez boy?" he yells.

" Si!" the people shout.

"Are we prepared to carry out any excessive act against any person?"

"No! No! No!"

Sanchez orchestrates a minute of silence in memory of children who have died in the Straits of Florida, of Elian's mother, and of political prisoners in Cuba. Then he leads a prayer. "We come humbly before you, oh Lord, beside the house of this child, who by a miracle of yours, was liberated at the cost of the life of his mother, his stepfather, and many other people, so that you could give us light and guide us to know what is best for him, to know what is your will, Father, so that you may fill us with determination...."

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