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."

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Kirk Nielsen
Contact: Kirk Nielsen