Tens of thousands of Cuban Americans--exiles and native Miamians, from school kids to the elderly--took to the streets of Little Havana Saturday in a flag-waving march prompted by outrage over the government’s seizure of Elian Gonzalez a week ago.
The march was orderly and without incident.
But violence was much on marchers’ minds.
“How can we teach our kids that violence is unacceptable when we see our government do that?” asked Cristine Dezayas, 23, a fifth-grade teacher, referring to the actions of heavily armed federal agents who removed the 6-year-old Cuban child from his Miami relatives’ home so that he could be reunited with his father.
Although the demonstration was designed as a protest, the anger of last week seemed to have given way to a celebration of Cuban pride, albeit a celebration tinged with sadness.
“We are upset at what happened,” said Cristina Suarez, a medical center director. “But we are Americans, and we love this country, too.”
The day after the raid, Suarez said, she went by the house of Lazaro Gonzalez, Elian’s great-uncle, and retrieved from the street the remnants of an American flag that had been burned. She painstakingly pieced the charred cloth together, glued it to poster board and carried it under the words: “American flag rescued by its Cuban-American adoptive sons and daughters.”
“I was irate about the flag burning,” said Suarez, 51. “This is not us. We respect the U.S. But I don’t like what happened to Elian.”
Indeed, Elian remains a symbol in Miami for legions of Cubans who revile the Cuban regime of Fidel Castro. Although many now accept the fact that Juan Miguel Gonzalez had a right to custody of his son, the all-but-inevitable return of Elian to Cuba is seen as a victory for Castro.
“No one should use force to return someone to Cuba,” said Manuel Peralta, 35, a balsero, or rafter, who came here eight years ago and now works as a security guard. With a Cuban flag draped around his shoulders, he marched down 18 blocks of Calle Ocho--Eighth Street--while wondering out loud what Elian might say to his father years from now.
“He’s going to remember people here, and Disney World, and he’s going to ask his father, ‘Why did you take me from the U.S.?’ ” said Peralta.
The march capped a turbulent week in Miami that began with the surprise seizure of Elian and a day of chaotic protests that included tire fires in the streets and accusations that police used excessive force in making more than 300 arrests. Days later, Miami Mayor Joe Carollo, irked that he was not tipped off to the raid, fired the city manager, which in turn led to the resignation of the police chief.
Under sunny skies and 85-degree heat, police kept a low profile Saturday, watching from side streets a passing parade that featured more colorful flags--most of them Cuban--than a patriotic carnival. As marchers casually strolled down the middle of a street blocked to traffic, some sang choruses of the Cuban national anthem, some shouted abuse at President Clinton and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, and others chanted Spanish-language rhymes in support of the child who lived here almost five months after being found at sea last November: “Elian, amigo, Miami esta contigo.” Elian, friend, Miami is with you.
A girl handed out flyers providing the mailing address of the Maryland farm where Elian is living with his father, and urged, “Let’s send him cards!”
Hundreds of marchers wore T-shirts imprinted with Elian’s face, or the famous photograph of the federal agent pointing a gun near the terrified child during the early-morning raid. Many families walked together, some hoisting homemade signs. Xiomara Rodriguez, 17, walked with her younger sister Fatima, 14, taking turns carrying a poster they made from newspaper photographs of last week’s seizure. “The whole thing just made me feel so bad,” said Rodriguez.
There were American flags being waved by the demonstrators too, as well as the flags of Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Argentina and Israel, among others.
Groups walked together: The Latin Builders Assn.; Mothers Against Repression, dressed all in black; and a marching band from the Lincoln-Marti School, the private academy Elian attended for several weeks. Teenagers marched along with professional men and women and older, middle-class couples, the men wearing guayaberas, the women in pearls and high-heeled pumps.
Some of those who marched were surprised to find themselves in a street protest. “I’ve never done anything like this in my life,” said Graciela Pinilla, a 50ish mother of two who held the flag of her native Mexico while her Cuban-born husband, Martin, carried a sign promising that he would remember his outrage at election time: “We will remember in November.”
“This is an expression of the frustration of the community,” said Cuban-born U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a Clinton administration critic. “I think the two themes that are being heard here are justice for Elian, and liberty for Cuba.”
Neither Lazaro Gonzalez nor his daughter Marisleysis was present. But earlier Saturday, Gonzalez issued a statement appealing for calm. “Elian is gone for now and my heart is broken,” it read. “But South Florida must stay united. We cannot allow this tragedy to destroy our community. We must continue to fight for Elian’s rights to live in freedom in America.”
Other voices were raised in Miami on Saturday as well. Ten miles south of Little Havana, a group of about 40 people waving American flags gathered at a busy intersection along U.S. 1 to show their support for Reno and what some called the rule of law. One man wore a flag shirt surrounded by the words, “America--love it or leave it,” a slogan not heard much in the U.S. since the Vietnam War.
“We love Janet Reno,” shouted one woman to motorists who honked their horns in appreciation.
Meanwhile, in a park in far north Miami-Dade County, dozens of employees of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and their families attended a picnic where they heard district director Robert Wallis laud the actions of his officers in last week’s raid. Some here also wore Elian T-shirts, these showing the smiling child in the arms of his father.
In remarks recorded by a television crew from WFOR, the CBS-TV affiliate in Miami, Wallis told a cheering crowd that during his 25 years with the INS, critics have often suggested that “we should be reorganized, we should be disbanded.”
“But I’ll tell you what,” said Wallis. “There is no one in the United State of America that is questioning the abilities of the U.S. Immigration Service.”