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A tale of two Miamis

In a Little Havana bereft of Elian Gonzalez, people have stopped working and talk radio is punctuated by anti-government rhetoric. Much of the rest of Miami offers barely a nod to the sideshow in its midst.
/ Source: msnbc.com

In a Little Havana bereft of Elian Gonzalez, tempers run high, people have staged strikes and talk radio is punctuated by conspiracy theories and harsh anti-government rhetoric. Much of the rest of Miami, however, gives barely a nod to the sideshow in its midst.

Driving along Flagler Street, which bisects Miami, you know you’ve reached Little Havana when the generic signs of American commercialism - supermarkets and strip malls - suddenly blend together with local Cuban-American funeral homes; jewelry stores and neighborhood bodegas such as Mi Ja Ruco Market, where a photograph of Elian is wedged under the counter-top glass.

It is easy to run into people like Rosa Vasquez, who stood outside the Gonzalez home on Sunday night, commiserating with neighbors about the government raid Saturday that reunited the 6-year-old boy with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez. Vasquez, who came to the United States during the 1980 Mariel boat lift, said she had been outside the home every night for the past five months - except Friday.

She is afraid, she said, because she thinks her sons, ages 8 and 10, believe someone will come for them in the same manner - and she doesn’t want them to see any more photos like the one of Elian and the armed agent. “I don’t want to see it anymore,” chimed in her 10-year-old.

Hers is a poignant tale - laced with perhaps a touch of hyperbole. That’s pretty much par for the course here in Little Havana, where the Red Threat lives on in people’s minds. The 50,000 or so residents of this Cuban-American community often focus on a homeland they remember longingly and relatives who remain 90 miles across the sea.

Potent imagery
The raid just before Easter offered potent imagery to the largely Catholic exile community: Elian as a Christ child-like figure of sacrifice; Marisleysis Gonzalez, Elian’s cousin and stand-in mother during the past five months, as a tragic corollary to the Virgin Mary, losing a son to a greater cause. These oft-repeated metaphors are dramatized by two other ubiquitous images: The Bad Photograph, of Elian confronted by an armed federal agent; and The Worst Photograph, of Elian in the arms of his father, which many in the community continue to speculate was doctored.

It is impossible to go more than a block or two in the neighborhood without seeing one or both of those images. And worse, for some, is that still photographs are now all people see of Elian, who once seemed to be living a “Truman Show” existence on national television.

“People are very concerned right now,” activist Ramon Saul Sanchez told MSNBC.com. “They haven’t seen the child on TV.”

Speaking at the studios of WWFE radio, a Spanish-language station in the heart of Little Havana, Sanchez still bears the marks from his attempt Saturday to get in the way of federal agents. The leader of the Miami-based anti-Castro Democracy Movement said the furor over Elian is the culmination of decades of built-up rage.

“You have to have lived the experience of the exile community being condemned to oppression” since the overthrow of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, he said. “Forty-one years of seeing many children arrive on these shores, many of them dead. And then you have Elian.”

Rage at Reno, Cinton
To many, the federal raid on the Miami home was a betrayal by the Clinton administration and by native Miami daughter Attorney General Janet Reno. Residents and local radio are full of vitriol.

A block from the Gonzalez home on Saturday night, Robert Rodriguez carried a sign listing the many sins of the Clinton administration, from Whitewater to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. He was especially focused on the federal standoff in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where the wife of white separatist Randy Weaver was killed by federal agents. Ruby Ridge actually occurred in 1992, during the Bush administration, though FBI Director Louis Freeh was responsible for much of the aftermath.

“They killed her,” Rodriguez said, “just like they’re going to kill [Elian].”

On Sunday night, Anais Acuna wandered around the Gonzalez home carrying a 2-foot statue of the Virgin Mary and proselytizing about Elian, abortion and why Pat Buchanan is the only choice for president. She symbolized the surreal collision in Little Havana of

Cold War politics, Catholic religiosity, political conservatism and Cuban pride.

But not all conservatives in Miami are on the side of Elian’s Miami relatives. Many non-Cubans are outraged that the Gonzalez family dragged out the conflict for so long.

On English-language talk radio, invective as harsh as the Cuban rhetoric is being tossed around, with the Gonzalez family the primary target.

“They make up the law,” said one announcer on WQAM, “they make up the stories, they lie, they twist.”

Responded a caller: “These people are more like communists than the communists.”

'No religion, no politics'
Many in Miami would rather not talk about Elian at all. A few miles east of Little Havana, the streets of South Beach were full Sunday night of young, sleek men and beautiful, skimpily dressed women. If there was any concern about Elian’s plight, it wasn’t visible.

“We call him Jesus around here,” Kenneth Hudson said with a smirk. A bartender at the Breakwater Café, Hudson said that during the past two months, he had only heard one mention of Elian: He threw out one patron who was discussing the case several days earlier.

“I have two rules about the bar,” he said. “No religion, no politics.”

It is an apt description of the rulebook for not only South Beach but for much of Miami. While local politics is dominated by Cuban influence, many residents are dismissive of the Elian saga. Some consider it to be the latest in a long and dramatic line of anti-Castro spectacles — such as Sanchez’s own 1998 attempt to sail a boat to Cuba.

Others are upset that the residents of Little Havana are casting the city in such a light. The Cuban population in Miami is about 800,000 in a metropolitan area of 3.6 million, and its influence is significant.

As one of the owners of the Breakwater, joining Hudson behind the bar, said: “They’re a small percentage of the population, but they’re very vocal.”

As for their thoughts on Elian’s fate, Hudson thought for a moment.

“Personally,” he said, “I’m a father, so I think he should have gone home a long time ago.”

But that’s about as far as the discussion of Elian goes on this corner of South Beach. The case has had only one other effect on the Breakwater, joked Hudson: “We changed the ‘Cuba libre’ to an ‘Elian libre.’ ”