Many in Miami are sick of the circus (April 6, 2000)

Many in Miami are sick of the circus
USA TODAY – Thursday, April 6, 2000
Author: Deborah Sharp; Guillermo X. Garcia

MIAMI — You might not know it from the national news, but there are legions of people in sprawling Miami-Dade County — nearly twice as big as Rhode Island — who don’t give a fig about the saga of Elian Gonzalez.

Outside one city block in Little Havana, where protesters gather daily in front of the home of the Cuban boy’s local family, life proceeds normally. Or at least as normally as things get in Miami-Dade, with its frequently bizarre politics and volatile ethnic stew of more than 2 million people.

The city of Miami is one of 30 municipalities in the larger surrounding county, but here, like elsewhere, the word ”Miami” serves as shorthand for the entire region.

The much-publicized passion over little Elian often is absent from the farm fields of Homestead to the chic shops in Aventura. Many here resent the national image of Miami as a powder keg that’s ready to blow if Elian goes home. They resent the view that Miami is a monolith that speaks only in the voice of the most strident members of the Cuban exile community.

”People see this on TV and extrapolate that all 2.2 million people here are in a frenzy. It’s not like that. We’ve all got work to do. We’ve all got routines,” says local historian Paul George, 57.

On English-language talk radio, callers flood the lines not to argue about whether Elian should go or stay but to rant about media excess over the little boy. Often, there are as many reporters as demonstrators in front of the Miami relatives’ home. Local TV news offers all-Elian, all-the-time programming.

”You can’t escape it. It’s on constantly,” says Emily Engle, 20, a waitress in Coconut Grove. ”My gosh, it’s getting to be like the O.J. trial: never-ending. They should just make a decision and be done with it.”

There is widespread sympathy for the boy, who was rescued Nov. 25. His mother and 10 others drowned when their boat capsized while they tried to flee Cuba. The level of emotion that surrounds the fight by his Miami relatives to keep Elian from Fidel Castro’s Cuba is not felt as deeply outside the exile community.

”The boy survives this ordeal, only to be returned to hell — which is what the Cuban people here consider Cuba to be today: A hell that is presided over by the devil himself,” says Juan Clark, a Cuban-born sociology professor at Miami-Dade Community College.

Numbering at most in the hundreds, the telegenic protesters outside the boy’s house represent just a tiny slice of the area’s 780,000-member Cuban-American community. Although the protest leaders are interviewed over and over as community spokespersons, there is a broad spectrum of feeling, even among Cubans, about the fight to keep Elian here.

”I see a lot of hatred toward Castro, and I can understand it, but I’m not part of it,” says Adrian Najara, 28, born in the USA of Cuban-born parents. ”If this boy were Mexican, or from any country but Cuba, this would not be happening.”

Miami Herald columnist Robert Steinbeck, an African-American who often writes about Miami’s ethnic rifts, says, ”Within Cuban exile Miami, this is a hugely important story. Outside that community, there are a lot of people who are sick of it, who are just saying, ‘Send the kid home and get it over with.’ ”

There is a fear that if the boy goes home, the now-small protests could escalate, as they have so often in Miami’s past. It doesn’t take many demonstrators to block roadways with dump trucks or stall motorists at expressway tollbooths — tactics used by Cuban exiles before.

The U.S. Justice Department’s Community Relations Service, which works to defuse racial and ethnic conflicts, has dispatched people to Miami. Tom Battles, director of the agency’s Miami office, has been meeting with Cuban community leaders since Elian arrived last year.

”These people are very committed. They see this not as a fight with this family, but as an exile community fight with Castro,” Battles says. ”The frustration is he will be reprogrammed if he’s sent back to Cuba. That’s what the exile community believes.”

A chief challenge is rumor control. Wild tales sweep like ocean waves through Miami and the ranks of protesters in front of the Gonzalez house. Tuesday, the appearance of a van on Elian’s street triggered a rumor that the vehicle held immigration agents poised to snatch the boy. The crowd surged through police barriers to form an arms-linked human chain in front of the house.

Monday, a rumor circulated that Elian’s father had already arrived and was hiding in Miami. Protesters believed Juan Miguel Gonzalez was going to storm the house with Cuban agents. That led to a call for an all-night vigil to defend Elian.

The city also buzzed this week with rumors of federal marshals massing for a raid. A lawyer for the Miami relatives appeared to lend credibility to the story. On national TV, he referred to about 200 marshals gathering near Miami.

The U.S. Marshals Service dismissed even the suggestion of that tale: ”I’ve never heard of such a thing,” says James Tassone, the service’s director in Miami.

Few here fear bodily injury or property damage from Cuban protests. Unlike racially tinged disturbances that have erupted in flames and physical violence in Miami and elsewhere, the Cuban exiles favor traffic-snarling protests that are mainly large-scale inconveniences.

Jennifer Ator, 28, a lawyer who works in downtown Miami, drives through Little Havana every night to get home. She’s not worried about civil disturbances because she doesn’t think Elian will ever be sent home.

”Everybody else in America expects them to send him back,” she says. ”Living here, if that day comes, I’m going to be in shock.”

Most callers to the show of acerbic radio host Neil Rogers would like nothing more than to see Elian go home. Not as much for political reasons as from fatigue with the constant media blitz. Rogers declared a recent Friday ”E-Free Day,” forbidding all mention of Elian.

”Everybody’s sick of talking about it,” says Boca Brian, the comic behind songs on the WQAM-560 show like Elian’s Island. To the tune of Gilligan’s Island, the song starts, ”Just sit right back, and you’ll hear a tale of a bearded Communista . . . ”

The songwriter says, ”The rest of the country looks at Miami like we’re a city of fools.”

Contributing: Gary Fields, Kevin Johnson and Donn Leinwand in Washington
Caption: PHOTO,b/w,Andrew Itkoff for USA TODAY; PHOTO,b/w,Rick Wilking,Reuters
Miami . . . Though the city is only a part of a wider county, it often is seen as representative of the entire region. Outside Little Havana, the much-publicized passion over the Elian Gonzalez case isn’t apparent. . . . and the media: News reporters and cameramen across the street from Elian’s relatives’ house offer steady coverage of the boy and his family.
Memo: The Nation; In the Elian Gonzalez case, protests and politics get all the publicity, but other residents just want the saga to be over.; See related stories: 01A, 06A
Section: NEWS
Page: 3A
Record Number: 674058
Copyright 2000 Gannett Co., Inc. All rights reserved.

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