Links Between Sausage And Political Conventions

As predicted, the Democrats answered the Republican Convention — stagecraft for stagecraft, defining-moment nominee speech for defining-moment nominee speech. Marketing mavens pitched the two major political parties. Whom we saw was what we got.

However, having watched both conventions, the Republican in person, I think it prudent to remember an applicable adage: some things are best viewed only as final products, for the process isn’t pretty. The list is short: laws, news, political conventions and sausage.

Sausage can speak for itself. As to the rest:

*The wheeling, dealing, back-scratching, horse-trading and quid pro quoing of politics is unseemly up close — regardless of the resultant law, from Jim Crow to Great Society. Compromise is too genteel a term.

*Deciding what is TV news is often a function of what doesn’t wind up on the cutting-room floor. Editing is critical, subjective, problematic and hurried. Ambush interviews and leading questions too often set up punchy, context-free sound bites. Print reporters’ trails and travails of inquiry are typically tedious and boring. Style, however, is as polite, ingratiating, deceptive, intimidating or beseeching as necessary to get the story — and get it first.

*Focusing on silly hats, infomercial ambience and hard news deficits is an inane intrusion into the essence of any convention — in-house cheerleading, incessant back-slapping, non-stop networking and, in this case, celebrity gawking. Unless you’re on assignment for People Magazine, this should be unworthy of media scrutiny.

The networks pretty much got it right by drastically curtailing their prime time coverage. They pared it back to a total of approximately 25 hours, which still left time for over-analysis. In Philadelphia, they largely focused on key elements of the final product — Colin Powell, John McCain, Dick Cheney, anybody named Bush and a couple of acceptance speeches. It was more challenging in Los Angeles where the Democrats were encumbered by Pacific Time and the need to spotlight a lot of Kennedys and a couple of Clintons.

Would that the rest of the media had adopted a relatively minimalist approach. PBS and cable networks CNN, MSNBC, Fox News Channel and C-SPAN combined for an additional 375 hours of TV tedium. Too many media — from multi-staffed daily newspapers and yada yada dot commies to celebrity talking heads — chasing too little substance. The result: inordinate attention paid to goofy garb and a continuous loop of pep rallies and schmoozing delegates — the sausage-making of any political convention.

In Philadelphia, for example, appearances by Bo Derek, still a near 10 despite some weird, faux-British accent, and The Rock, still a mixed-message mistake, seemed almost newsworthy for a party that is still celebrity challenged beyond Charlton Heston.

But just because the nominees have been pre-selected, platform planks pre-set and elephant hats prepared, doesn’t mean these quadrennial gatherings are nothing more than atavistic, pre-coronation exercises in pomp and partisanship — without much value.

“One of the biggest problems we have in this country is voter apathy,” opined Florida delegate Al Austin from the cacophonous floor of Philadelphia’s First Union Center. “An event like this is an opportunity to get people focused on the fact that there’s a presidential election coming up. It’s a way for voters to get aware and interested — and introduced to candidates.”

Austin, a Tampa developer, consummate insider and finance chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, also pointed out that, as with any convention — from hardware to pharmaceuticals — it’s the perfect forum to energize the troops to go forth and, well, sell.

“It fires these folks up and generates a lot of enthusiasm for carrying the message,” pointed out Austin. “If you’re a delegate, this is an honor. They feel like they’re a part of something big.”

Added University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus: “This convention is a reward for the county organizations, for those who labor in the trenches, for those who are the backbone of the party. These are the people who can make or break a campaign between now and November

Was it media’s nature to be a Coe-conspirator?

No, you haven’t read this before — although the subject is painfully familiar.

In the aftermath of the still shocking, self-inflicted death of State Attorney Harry Lee Coe III, the post-mortems have been both profuse and predictable.

No one, of course, denies the tragedy of it all. No one doesn’t lament the sad demise of a good man.

There certainly was a consensus that the late Judge Coe was an eccentric, complicated, conflicted, loyal, powerful prosecutor with a track record of bizarre behavior and conscientious public service. The aberrant antics inevitably invited controversy as well as scrutiny, initially from the media, eventually from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. In time, the unflattering attention would overshadow the 30 years of service Coe rendered as a judge and Hillsborough state attorney.

At his death, Coe was better known for quirks and questionable practices than community contributions as an effective juvenile court prosecutor and stalwart in the struggle against spousal abuse. He also had an incongruously private side rarely seen in public officials.

Also among the post-mortems was an acrid, accusatory chorus of public sentiment blaming the media, both print and electronic, for the suicide of the harried Coe. For using its coverage to push him past the perilous precipice he had been teetering upon.

Predictably enough, the media responded largely with knee-jerk, self-serving rationalizations articulated by editors, columnists and news executives. “We’re just doing our job” and “Don’t shoot the messenger” became the media’s shields and shibboleths.

There is, of course, truth in those responses, but it must be qualified. That’s because the media did play a major, albeit unwitting, role in Coe’s suicide. It wasn’t by design — but by culture.

An anecdote involving Walter Cronkite is illustrative. In answer to a question regarding the media’s seeming obsession with all things bad and scandalous, the erstwhile dean of TV journalism replied: “Most people don’t care about all the cats that did not get stuck in trees today.”

Cronkite was correct. That which is supposed to happen is not news; the unexpected is. The uncrashed plane or the unmurdered convenience store owner is as much non-news as a safe intersection or a squeaky clean public official.

“If it bleeds, it leads” is more than insiders’ gallows humor. It’s local TV news dogma — and won’t change unless tabloid competition disappears and TV news reverts from profit-center and network lead-in status to the loss-leader standing of television’s early days. Or somebody does some serious soul searching.

The question begged, however, is who can reliably draw the line between informing the public and pandering to it? The First Amendment permits both; the bottom line doesn’t always favor the former. And more to the point here, who, if anyone, credibly defines that line between holding a public official accountable and hounding him during “sweeps” month? Presumably, the people’s right to know about Coe’s greyhound gambling and $12,000 in loans from office employees last year would be no less important in a non-sweeps period. Moreover, imagine the coverage if a crime had been committed.

Most TV newsrooms are hard pressed to make the tough calls on the side of sensitivity, especially where a high-profile, “good copy” person is involved. Reporters are, by training and inclination, skeptics; many eventually morph into cynics, and we’ve all seen the results. And everybody lives and dies by ratings.

The crashed plane is obvious news, but is there a compelling public interest in knowing, say, how the disaster feels to next of kin? We’ve all seen and heard that question asked. How do you think they feel? Viewers don’t need to become voyeurs in the name of their right to know.

It is absolutely the media’s “job” to report that crash, murder, traffic accident or alleged public-trust violation, but it needn’t be anyone’s “job” to sensationalize or serialize it. And that goes even if it’s July sweeps, and you’ve got an investigative series to promote and tease around the clock. Is it possible Harry Coe caught some of that tabloidy, investigative hype?

While TV news has a sense of relentless ubiquity, the daily newspapers were more of a drumbeat the week leading up to Coe’s death. The morning that Coe’s body was discovered by a Channel 8 investigative reporter and photographer, both dailies had page one stories of the FDLE’s preliminary investigation of those repaid employee loans and allegations that Coe may have visited greyhound racing Web sites on his government-issued laptop computer. Among other front page stories the Coe pieces took layout priority over were: findings that most cancers are caused by lifestyle not genes; a proposal that pushes an improved Medicare drug plan; news that huge profits are being reaped by oil producers and refiners; and a FAA report that finds nothing amiss in the controversial lease of TIA-owned property to a mall developer. All important stories, to be sure, just less so than another Harry Coe update.

The following morning, the front-page headline in the St. Petersburg Times actually asked: “Why would he do it?” Part of the answer might have been directly below that incredulous headline. It was a large, color crime scene photo showing the covered, yet still obviously outlined and slumped body of Coe. Nice touch.

That’s why.

And one final post-mortem. Would that the local media look inward in the aftermath of the Harry Lee Coe tragedy. If so, this is what they should see:

That the continued need to not pull any reporting punches is compatible with putting away the brass knuckles until they’re needed.

That while theirs is a highly competitive business, it’s still the only one with a sacrosanct First Amendment mandate to inform — not pander.

That there are human beings behind their news-product stories — and that skeptics can be empathetic.

If this were to happen, Coe’s death would be much more than a tragic footnote in the governmental annals of Hillsborough County. It would be an ironic tribute.

Iran: More in common than conflict

TEHRAN– “Some places you have to see for yourself.” That was my stock, terse-to-a-fault answer, and I stuck with it when queried about plans to spend some time recently in Iran.

THAT Iran.

Of American hostage-taking fame. Of “Death-to-the-Great Satan” renown. Of state-sponsorship-of-terrorism repute. Of Satanic Verses hitmen. Of teenage “martyrs.” Of dyspeptic, stern-visaged mullahs. Of sepulchral, chador-shrouded women. Of Luddite license toward the Internet. Of Koranic cops. Of heavy-handed censorship. Of institutionalized anti-Semiticism. Of public executions. Of earthquakes. Of awful television. Of squat toilets. Of no beer.

What’s not to dislike except for world-class worry beads and nickel-a-liter gas?

“You are American, yes? I’ve been to Kansas City. America is a great country. Americans are great people. These are my children.”

The longer answer says that too much that matters to America — and the rest of the world — has happened here. The fall of the Shah and the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini made us examine our culture as well as our foreign policy.

The short list of America’s favorite autocrats was subsequently downsized. It also forced us to acknowledge Islam beyond knowing it has something to do with Muhammad Ali, Louis Farrakhan and a bunch of black bouncers in bow ties.

To know a country and a people only through the filtered lens of the American media is to court collective ignorance. Arguably, too many Americans are already there on matters historical and geographical.

“Mister — you American? Welcome. You-like-Iranian-people-we-like Americans.”

A civilization — Persian –that has been around for 2,500 years and weathered invasions by Greeks, Arabs, Mongols and McDonalds has some kind of staying power. It is the only country — Persia officially became Iran in 1935 — invaded by Arabs that retained its language — Farsi — and culture.

Its 64 million people — from Third World, desert-dwelling nomads to first-among-equals nabobs in the gated communities of North Tehran — are as proud as they are stubborn. They are also young. Half the country’s population wasn’t around for the Khomeini-led revolution of 1979.

Although 20 years removed from the Islamic Revolution and the takeover of the U.S. Embassy, the 444-day, hostage ordeal understandably remains — for many Americans — a defining, viscerally humiliating and enraging image in the demonizing of America. For many in the West — especially the U.S. — Islam has replaced communism as the Cold War villain. And nobody among the one-fifth of the planet who practice Islam has been more villainous than the theocracy from hell, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

But a funny thing happened on the way to reinforcing an unflattering stereotype of the country so many Americans love to hate. The Iranian people wouldn’t cooperate.

“HELLL-o, HELLL-o. Sorry for my English not so good. Good bye and welcome.”

Not in Tehran, a noisy, nondescript, motorcycle-and-car-clogged city of more than 10 million people — most of whom appear to be crossing the street at any given time — and hundreds of abandoned construction projects. Nor in the sprawling, time-warp bazaars of Shiraz and Isfahan, the latter an oasis of beauty in an ancient ruins, desolation-dominated countryside. Not in scores of produce and spice shops; not in mosques; not at newsstands; not near universities; and not by ad hoc soccer fields.

The Iranian people were uniformly open, gracious and typically taken aback. Some NATO allies wouldn’t have been so hospitable. Old and (especially) young, male and (even) female; civilians, clerics, cops. And yes, there are mild-mannered mullahs and disarmingly friendly soldiers.

Iraqis, afterall, are the real, eight-years-worth-of-devastating-war enemy in Iran. And if Iranians just want to feel superior, there’s always the lowly Afghanis, currently straining resources as refugees from Taliban barbarities.

“Welcome to Yazd. We like Americans. Do you like futbol? World Cup? Iran 2, USA, 1. But America is good team too.”

Americans, however, seem viewed more as intriguing curiosity pieces, unwitting hostages, so to speak, of Middle Eastern stereotypes and a government still officially inimical to their own. Erstwhile support for the Shah is more a colonial footnote than a reason to dislike Americans now. And it’s been 11 years since the USS Vincennes downed a commercial Iranian airliner.

It’s as if a decade removed from the death of ultimate zealot Khomeini, there’s a sense that so much of what impacts Iranian lives today — U.S. trade sanctions notwithstanding — has increasingly little to do with America and nothing to do with Americans. It has much more to do with depressed oil prices, refugee problems, a population explosion, xenophobic attitudes and governmental meddling in the economy.

“Mister. Can we speak English to you? We-like-Americans-do-you-like-President-Khatami?”

Sure, the Iranian government is restrictive and paranoid, but who can explain governments anyhow, including our own? And yes, the name Monica Lewinsky, embarrassingly enough, did surface but only to buttress the contention that government leaders are rarely worthy of those they govern.

Right now Iran is undergoing serious, sometimes strident, internal debate on just how much to open up to the West and how much to ease up on its citizens without running afoul of Islamic guidelines. The personally popular president, Mohammad Khatami, does a high-wire act daily over the political mosh pit of religious hard liners and pragmatic reformers.

“I think what you have experienced in your travels is a true reflection of how Iranian people feel about Americans,” summarized Akbar Heshani, the owner of one of the myriad Persian carpet shops in the Isfahan bazaar. “You are admired as a people because of your many accomplishments and your country, of course, is the only super power,” he said. “The Iranian people are surprised and probably flattered you are here.

“All that’s happened in the past is between governments,” he added. “We are different, but we can still be friends.”For now, that will have to do.

There are no official diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran. Only recently has the U.S. government backed off its embargo on all trade with what is still considered a pariah state that supports terrorism and fancies weapons of mass destruction. Sanctions are being waived on a case-by-case basis on the export of food and medicine.

As for Iran, although President Khatami has called for better relations with the U.S., he has stopped short of endorsing an official dialogue. But the good news is the reminder that individuals will always have more in common than in conflict.

What’s amazing, however, is that we have to keep relearning that basic lesson in human nature. People not caught up in governmental power politics tend to get along.

Which means that diplomatically, a friendly “salaam,” a courteous smile and an extended hand will just have to do — nicely as it turns out.

Let the (Friendship) Force be with you

The U.S. State Department officially — and euphemistically — warns all U.S. citizens to “defer” travel to Iran. There are no formal diplomatic or consular relations between the U.S. and Iran, although the Swiss government, through its embassy in Tehran, serves as protecting power for U.S. interests there.

But nobody pretends a surrogate government can “protect” an American the way an American Embassy can — provided, of course, no one swarms its grounds, scales its walls and takes its citizens hostage.

The Iranian government, however, does grant visas to American citizens and operates an Interests Section in Washington. Application can be made there — and a visa granted subject to review by Iran’s Foreign Ministry. The understandably few Americans interested in traveling to Iran are advised to allow at lea
st several months for the visa process to run its bureaucratic course.

In my case, there was also the travel vehicle of the Friendship Force, a non-political organization that fosters friendship among private citizens worldwide. I traveled with a contingent of 24 other Friendship Force “ambassadors.” The Friendship Force expedited the visa paperwork by utilizing the good offices of Canada, which often intercedes for the officially estranged countries.

Co-founded more than 20 years ago by former President Jimmy Carter, the FF is based on the premise that friendship — facilitated by direct people-to-people contact — can be a catalyst for improved world relations. Atlanta-based Friendship Force International now includes clubs in more than 350 communities around the world — from Brazil to Belarus.

Additional information on The Friendship Force is available at (404) 522-9490.

Land of contrasts, country in transition

Some things you can’t blame on an all day, all-night, twitchy-limbed, bleary-eyed flight from Tampa to Tehran via New York and Frankfurt.

For instance, upon the approach to Tehran there was an abrupt morphing of all the women aboard Lufthansa flight 405 into a sea of cloaked, scarfed specters. No manner of eye-rubbing and double-taking could change it.

One moment you’re next to a woman; the next moment you’re beside a speed bump. For some, make-up became even less prominent. Whether Westernized Iranians returning from overseas or non-Islamic Republic visitors, they were all gearing up to cover up.

Since 1983, public “veiling” has been mandatory for all women in Iran. And there are no summer-color loopholes. Earth tones rule.

Then there’s the Customs Declaration for Arriving Passengers. “In The Name of God” is emblazoned at the top of the form to remind all that the Deity is also the Ultimate Bureaucrat in Iran.

Anyhow, you’re asked to declare that not only are you not bringing guns, ammunition, drugs, alcoholic beverages and glossies of the late Shah into Iran, but you’re also not toting cassettes, CDs, books, magazines and films that are “in violation of public order and decency and national and religious values of the country.”

Party on.

After a two-hour airport welcome — disguised as a paranoia attack by officials at the sight of 25 Americans — it’s on to an official briefing. To quote a government tour guide: “You must remember that there is no alcohol available here. It is forbidden. Not in the hotel. Not in restaurants

The Times, they are a changin’ in Iran too

This summer’s pro-democracy protests in Iran took much of the West by surprise. It did so because we know so little of that country beyond its image as a terrorist state that sanctioned the taking of American hostages.

Its most recognizable images are anti-American demonstrators, androgynous, chador-shrouded women and grim-looking clerics — all seemingly trying to repeal the 20th century.

What most Americans don’t know is that most Iranians weren’t around for the Revolution of 1979. In fact, two thirds of its 64 million people are under age 25. Its youth, who can start voting at age 15, are the most educated generation in Iran’s history. From 1979 to 1999, literacy went from 58% to 82%. Not surprisingly, they want what most people want — a better life.

This generation knows the revolution unshackled Iranians from an authoritarian dynasty, and that Islam was the vehicle. What many of them also know is that the revolution against a dictatorship was hijacked by the most conservative clerics.

These reactionary mullahs, in turn, crafted a constitution delegating ultimate power to a supreme religious leader — Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his 10-year successor, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei. Purges, opposition bashing and rigid social restrictions have followed.

When the opportunity came, however, to popularly elect a president in 1997, a mandate for the reformist Mohammad Khatami resulted. Khatami, who favored an opening to the West and democratic reforms at home, won 70% of the youth-skewed vote in a four-way contest. He’ll likely be re-elected next year as well.

While the students respect Khatami, they’ve grown restless for rapid results. They want more republic and less theocracy in the Islamic Republic. And that’s what Khatami, ever mindful that his hard-line opposition ultimately controls the police, the judiciary and the media, can’t deliver at more than a prudent pace. This uneasy state of discontent was shattered when police and vigilante-type activists stormed a Tehran University dormitory and set in motion a series of demonstrations and riotous behavior in a number of Iranian cities.

Journalist Joe O’Neill was traveling in Iran prior to the outbreaks, and he reports on a populace that, for all its recent history and alien Islamic ways, has more in common than conflict with Americans. He was also privy to some of the frustrations simmering among Iranian students.

Now playing: “Valessa: Poster Child for Parricide”

For those of us who have had enough of “Parenthood Vs. Politics: All Elian All The Time,” we’ve now been privy to “Valessa: Poster Child for Parricide.”

For those who can’t wait for the supermarket tabs, HBO and “48 Hours,” there have been the daily print and electronic news accounts. But even they, of course, couldn’t keep up with the sheer newsworthiness of Valessa Robinson’s notoriety nor the presumed demand for more details, both mundane and ghastly.

That’s why the St. Petersburg Times ran a serialized feature — during jury selection — on Valessa, the former Sickles High student who was on trial here in Tampa for helping her boyfriend and another chum to murder her mom in a particularly gruesome fashion. The Times’ multi-part report, teased on its newspaper racks and through tabloidy radio ads and available on its Website, was laid out colorfully with lots of photos — some relevant and in focus. (And yes, you can order extra copies of the series from the Times.)

Even columnists, need I say, have proven voyeuristically challenged in the process of decrying the media circus.

It’s not just the allure of the lurid, however, that makes us all stop and look — not unlike knee-jerk rubberneckers at an accident intersection. It’s the human fascination with the ultimate, unthinkable crime: killing the one who gave you life. Moreover, perpetrators, no matter how grizzly or senseless their crime, can morph perversely into a societal celebrity.

Thus we have, sensationally yet simply, “Valessa.” In this culture, someone has truly arrived as a media staple when they join that special pantheon of one-name personalities that includes Cher, Madonna, Sting, Hillary, Junior, Fidel and Jeb!.

Thanks to her public-defender attorney, Valessa Robinson was decked out demurely every trial day like Becky Thatcher looking for Tom Sawyer on the set of a slasher movie. Her defense team knew there was always the chance that a jury, especially one that claims it doesn’t know enough to be anything but impartial, would buy the child-victim makeover.

Too bad Valessa really wasn’t the preppy schoolgirl she so resembled. But that, of course, would have been boring and unworthy of the Jerry Springer Show, let alone a notorious, first-degree murder trial.

Forensic Foodfight at the Apollo in Harlem

Just when it appeared that Gov. George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain might both self-destruct in a demolition derby of character assassination, along came the Al Gore-Bill Bradley debate. The high decibel, raucous, celebrity-dotted one at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem sponsored by CNN, Time and the WWF. Call it “Pandermania I.”

This exercise in recrimination, revisionism and rank rejoinders was enough to get Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale and George McGovern looking for their running shoes again. Gore and Bradley forensically flogged each other and tripped over the truth in blatantly pandering to America’s black voters — especially when it came to who was more opposed to racial profiling and more in favor of affirmative action. Neither, however, thought much of Bob Jones University, which doesn’t even have a basketball team.

Bradley won on points if extra credit is given for “white skin privilege” references (4) and sheer persistence of stagecraft. The former New Jersey senator tried repeatedly to reacquaint Gore with the documentation of his five senate votes between 1979 and 1981 to preserve tax-exempt status for colleges that racially discriminate.

It was somehow fitting that the Rev. Al Sharpton was accorded the evening’s leadoff question. It was on racial profiling and police brutality and was framed in the perception that “Many in our community have to live in fear of both the cops and the robbers.”

Too bad that neither candidate had the guts — and indifference to Democratic Party sacrilege and political suicide — to frame the first answer this way: “Many in your community also have to live in fear of professional race baiters who feed off and foment fears, stereotypes and rumors to advance their own agendas.”

Little Richard, where were you when we needed you?

Not Enough Irish Ayes for Disarmament

The occasion of Great Britain’s recent decision to suspend Northern Ireland’s fledgling, power-sharing, Protestant-Catholic government had me re-reading my notes from Gerry Adams’ barnstorming American tour last year. Florida was on the itinerary, and I listened to the Sinn Fein leader at the University of Tampa and at Colin Breen’s Four Green Fields Irish Pub near downtown Tampa.

Adams — who’s no Lucky Charms cut-up — can be pleasant and polite. But the tenor of his comments, in the context of the precarious state of the Good Friday Agreement, was as disarming as it was illuminating. Adams is brinkmanship incarnate.

The current deal-breaker, of course, is the IRA’s reluctance to turn over weapons — “decommissioning” as it’s called in the argot of disarmament. And to do it with enough specificity of detail to assure all parties of Sinn Fein’s commitment to non-violence and the 72-day-old, now suspended, Belfast government. As of now, talks remain broken off with the official disarmament panel of Gen. John de Chastelain of Canada. Secure Semtex supplies and caches of automatic weapons are reminders that the IRA is still armed and not ready for the alternative.

In his Tampa appearance, Adams made clear that the Good Friday peace accord and what was to become the shared-power experiment in self-government was merely a “short term, strategic goal.” Unification with the Republic of Ireland remained, unwaveringly, the long-term goal. And, according to Adams, “long term” is not all that “long” as demographic patterns continue to favor Northern Ireland’s Catholic population. More like “15-25 years out,” he said. In other words, a favorable self-determination scenario looms large.

“Irish unity will manifest itself in whatever society people want,” he stated a year ago. “Peace is not just the absence of violence. It’s also justice

The Sham And Shame Of The Elian Gonzalez Case

Time was when South Florida’s Cuban exiles and pandering politicians were satisfied with holding veto power over United States’ policy toward Havana. Until Fidel Castro dies off, went their mantra, the embargo lives on. End of discussion — unless anti-embargo voices actually enjoyed the irony of being shouted down by undemocratic demagogues draped in the American flag.

That such lethal leverage, made possible by political expedience and cowardice in Washington, was not in the best interests of the Cuban people or American businesses was incidental. That it was inimical to U.S. foreign-policy credibility was irrelevant. That it was numbskull dumb and perversely unpatriotic was ignored.

The anti-Castro vendetta that masquerades as principled policy toward Cuba, however, has reached a new low with the custody crucible of the shipwrecked Elian Gonzalez. The six year old was found lashed to an inner tube off the coast of Ft. Lauderdale on Thanksgiving morning, after his mother, her boyfriend and nine others had drowned. Now it’s the best interests of a traumatized child that are being sacrificed by the exploitative exile community.

The usual suspects, led by the reactionary likes of South Florida Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, became human velcro in attaching themselves to Elian. They cast him as a victim of Communism in a cold war custody battle between his Miami relatives and his father and two sets of grandparents in Cuba, who have played major roles in his upbringing.

In reality, he was more a victim of reckless endangerment, as his mother’s boyfriend jammed too many smuggled passengers — at $1,000 a pop — into his small aluminum motorboat.

Amid the propaganda firestorm of jingoistic rhetoric and a backdrop of intimidating demonstrations, Judge Rosa Rodriguez of the Miami-Dade Circuit Court has granted temporary custody of Elian to relatives in Miami. Interestingly enough, the consultant who ran her election campaign is also a spokesman for the custody-battling Miami Gonzalezes.

Just days before Judge Rodriguez’s non-conflict-of-interest decision, the Immigration and Naturalization Service had ruled that Elian’s father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, was the only person it recognized as representing the child’s best interest and should expect him home in Cardenas, Cuba by January 14.

For a state court to blindside the federal government — in the form of an INS order — is a bizarre delaying tactic, likely not legal and a mockery of expeditious justice. But it could work. Although Attorney General Janet Reno says the Rodriguez order has “no force or effect,” the Clinton Administration may, in effect, not want to continue to play the heavy to influential, South Florida fanatics in an election year. A full evidentiary hearing isn’t scheduled until March 6. That’s two more bribery-filled months of ice cream utopia, video games, Nike sportswear, Disney World visits, Universal Studios tours, cell phones, Gap Kids duds and skewed views of daily life in America.

Legally and morally, this is equal parts sham and shame.

Under U.S. law, when one parent dies, custody of a child belongs to the other parent — absent evidence, such as neglect or abuse, that the surviving parent is unfit. Being a card-carrying Communist living in Cuba does not disqualify Juan Miguel Rodriguez from custody of his son. Even if he has a framed glossy of Che and a velvet Fidel in his home. There is no exemption from doing the right thing because Cuba is involved.

What Elian Gonzalez has needed once he had recovered from his ordeal at sea, was the love and security of family members who had raised him — not status as a tug-of-war trophy. He’s at the epicenter of an anti-Castro circus, a pawn between propagandists on both sides of the Florida Straits. He belongs, not to an ideology, but to a family and a father. He is a little boy, not a geopolitical icon.

To date, the irrational, intolerant, Cuban exile community is winning the war of words and warnings. It is inimitably aided by the political ploys of North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, Florida Senator Connie Mack and Indiana Representative Dan Burton. It is further fortified by the anti-Castro forensics of the Republican Six and the laissez faire-weather approach of the Administration and the men who would be the next Democrat elected president.

Oh, and Castro also wins. The Elian affair is propaganda manna for a dictator. He gets another welcome diversion to rally his island against the Yanqui bully that hypocritically equates material goods with family values.

When he was pulled from the sea, Elian had no idea he would later be thrown to the sharks.

Gasparilla At Sea: A Wake On The Wild Side

It’s not by affirmative-action issues, Cuban-American politics and Channelside redevelopment scenarios alone that columnists live. At least not this one. Not this week.

Sometimes it’s just good, well, therapy to step back from the journalistic fray of fighting the good fight. To ease off the socially responsible schtick. To dismount that high horse of conviction. To experience an alternative perspective. To take yourself much less seriously.

Sorry for the windy preamble, but this is obviously a lame, self-serving rationale for something. And as it turns out, something normally not noted and mused about in a family newspaper. But without the following eye-witness account, yet another Gasparilla Day in Tampa would have passed without someone chronicling in some detail what happens on the high seas — in effect, a wake on the wild side.

One of the first things you notice on board with the Krewe of the Knights of Sant’Yago is that you’re in the midst of some 275 guys in sequined capes, necklaces and tights. And some absolutely have the legs for it. But it’s not, of course, some form of political correctness run amok.

Early on, the countdown moves inexorably toward 9:45 a.m. That’s when the Krewe, stoked on café con leche and Cuban toast, leaves its Tampa Convention Center mooring and heads out toward Ballast Point to rendezvous with the mother ship, the Jose Gasparilla, and several hundred other craft. Equally of note: 9:45 also marks the point at which the cash bar converts to open. Lots of 9:46 Bloody Marys.

The cast of characters on the double-decked boat with palm trees on top is an affable mix of business execs, salesmen, attorneys, physicians, engineers, teachers, at least one psychologist, and probably a couple of dot commies. Heavy on gregarious Hispanics with old Tampa taproots. It’s back slapping, hearty-laughing, lie-telling, cigar-chomping camaraderie. It’s how guys used to act before networking was an art form or anybody cared about having an alpha side. It’s vintage Tampa.

There’s a guy in red who’s an eerie amalgam of Captain Morgan and Frank Zappa. There’s also the reigning king, Jose Dominguez, pressed out handsomely in crown; flowing, white cape; and high, stiff collar that would also do justice to another king.

Once at sea, the indoor ambience is dominated by the pulsing beat of Ricky Martin and Gloria Estefan tunes, long bathroom lines and middle-aged testosterone bursts not unrelated to photo ops with a couple of comely waitresses in epidermal britches. All around are concentric circles of boats with names not subtle enough to be suggestive. They include “Sea Stud,” “IV Play,” “Wet Spot” and “Bite This.”

There are also numerous craft with such prosaic names as “Police,” “Sheriff” and “Coast Guard.” Personnel on board, many sporting beads and animated expressions, didn’t seem exactly put out over the assignment. Perhaps it’s to enforce city council’s six-foot ordinance.

The high-decibel music is interrupted periodically by the captain/emcee/lounge comedian/procurer who bellows whimsically in mildly bawdy code. For example, the word “ jaeba ,” Spanish slang for crab, becomes an anatomical euphemism as the Krewe heads for the known flash points on Hillsborough Bay.

The Shecky Green of the high seas would routinely inquire of the jaeba status of incoming cigarette boats and cabin cruisers on behalf of the bead-bedecked Krewe. “ Jaeba to the right” would alert the Krewe of incoming female flashers, some with “Bead Me” signs, off the starboard side. These human hood ornaments were obviously fortified by adult beverages and often cosmetic enhancements — and emboldened by the sight of bead-bearing, harmless guys in gaudy tunics and feathered caps.

References to the “feel of approval,” admonitions to not “bruise the fruit,” and queries as to whether “they are real or pasta?” played as a continuous loop.

The more, uh, coquettish sorts had to be, uh, cajoled with bead-inducing entreaties of “pull it up,” “free ’em,” and “free them puppies.” Not since the sale of Manhattan Island have beads been better barter bargains. But at least this time, the term “consenting adults” was more applicable.

As if party to some ritualistic tit for tat — or maybe just an off-course feminist — one woman held aloft a “Show Us Your balls” sign. Talk about cojones .

After a while, it wasn’t easy keeping abreast of all the new-found bosom buddies barely containing themselves. But don’t get the idea that all female flashers, including those who offered more than mere toplessness, were godsends from central casting. The, uh, non-nubile were also represented, sometimes prompting this sort of one-sided exchange: “Here’s some beads. Don’t show us any more. Please.”

Appetites thus sated for another invasion day, the Krewe heads back in the midst of the world’s most unique flotilla, a festive phenomenon that is all too truly Tampa. “Yeah, Tampa Bay, we’re coming home,” exhorts the Alvarez Guedes of Gasparilla.

Now alongside are the more discreet “Sea N Double,” “Vince Able,” “Midaswell,” “Knot On Call” and “Y Knot.”

Indeed. Well, at least knot until next year.

Now about those pandering, presidential candidates coming here and butting into “One Florida” politics

Moonlighting Over Havana

HAVANA — Amid the mix of vintage Chevrolets, Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs, several Mercedes cabs, a few dowdy, Soviet-era Lada compacts, and the omnipresent, sidecar-affixed motorcycles, there was no missing the military truck. Towering over the traffic, it had showed some serious acceleration until it abruptly stopped in front of Parque de la Fraternidad near downtown Havana. Then out jumped two armed, sternly-visaged soldiers.

A dissident sweep, perhaps? Overkill in the war against street-corner speculators? The ultimate, strong-arm strategy in the inchoate, frustrating fight against pickpockets and prostitutes?


The two soldiers immediately hustled to the rear of the truck, where they opened the canvas flap. A frail woman, likely in her 70s, was then helped down by the soldiers. Next came a youth of maybe 10; then his bicycle. Then another two dozen civilians.

This was hitchhiking, Cuban style, a microcosm of the island’s indefatigable, make-do mentality. Outside Havana and other cities there are yellow-suited officials called amarillos who queue up hordes of hitchhikers and wave down state vehicles, which are required to stop and give a lift to a companero — or comrade.

It was a graphic reminder that Cuba is still very much in its “Special Period,” as the post-Eastern Bloc-subsidy epoch is known. In effect, in means “tough it out some more” while Cuba, a country reborn of revolutionary rhetoric and raised on ration cards, recovers from near economic collapse with a diet of dollars and a rapid-growth tourism strategy.

Cuba and its 12 million people have learned to live with the punitive U.S. embargo — called a blockade by all Cubans — and, indeed, Fidel Castro has been able to use it for his own anti-imperialist, scapegoating purposes. But it’s the dollars, legal tender since 1993, and the (mostly) European, Canadian and Mexican tourists that have morphed Castro’s socialist dream into some kind of perverse practical joke.

While the country formally celebrates the 40th anniversary of its revolution this year, the requisite, long-winded speeches — not the least of which, of course, are still by Castro — are now muted with caveats against crime and decadence. Both are directly linked to free-market reforms — such as limited free enterprise and legalized self-employment — and tourism. Especially tourism.

Recently Otto Rivero, the president of the Union of Young Communists, laced his revolutionary boilerplate with dire warnings about “…delinquency, economic crimes against state property, prostitution and its effects, consumption of drugs and the proliferation of children begging from tourists…”

While a pretty fair argument can be mustered for any kind of revolution that would have ousted the corrupt Batista regime in 1959 and introduced free medical care, education and food rations, it’s beyond irony that the seeds are seemingly being resown for the next revolution.

Castro himself warned of as much in a speech to police earlier this year urging a further crackdown on crime, which he compared to a “fifth column” of enemies attacking the socialist revolution from within.

“On you depends internal order, and if we lose the battle for internal order, then we lose everything,” said Castro, who, nonetheless, realizes he can’t woo free-spending tourists to a police state. Club Dread would be a hard sell.

Moreover, all such ideological skirmishes are fought in the context of a tinderbox economy. Cuban peso salaries, including those of professionals, currently average about $15 a month. Pensioners draw an average of $3 monthly. The juxtaposition of such Cubans — typically crammed into aging, tiny apartments within large, crumbling neoclassical structures — with affluent tourists coursing around town can foment frustration, disillusionment and jealousy.

The best stores, goods, accommodations, taxis and even hospital facilities are not for local consumption. Pesos are redeemable for only a half bottle of cooking oil, 5 pounds of rice and four eggs per month, when available. They’ll also pay for a baseball game, and a few centavos will also get you aboard one of the ugly, jam-packed, troop train-like buses called camellos (camels). Virtually nothing worth having, let alone luxury items, is available without dollars — often a lot of them.

No revolution yet known to man has been able, ultimately, to negate human nature. People have wants not satisfied by revolutionary slogans. No revolution has ever been able to justify a sense of low self-worth and second-class status in one’s own country. It’s why revolutions are fought in the first place.

No wonder, then, that an all-too-typical street scene in Old Havana includes an eclectic mix of sleek cabs, bicycle-driven rickshaws and fancy tour buses wending around European tourists, cigar hustlers, generic beggars, young hookers and restaurant touts. And it’s not just the Italians, Brits, Spaniards and Canadians who sport the occasional Tommy Hilfiger shirt, New York Yanqui cap and bad Nike knock-off. And audible somehow, somewhere over the street noise are the inevitable strains of “Guantanamera,” now a siren song for foreign tourists.

Literally overlooking such ticklish tableaus are locals peering impassively down from their laundry-bedecked balconies. What might be on their minds might be Castro’s worst nightmare.

“Castro’s done what he’s had to in order to weather the toughest of times,” says Harry Vanden, a professor of government and international affairs at the University of South Florida and an expert on Latin America. “But he’s had to take some pretty extreme measures to pull it off. They can get away with what they’re doing for a few years, but how long does a ‘Special Period’ last?”

As recently as 1990, Cuba hosted only 100,000 tourists; in 1998, it welcomed 1.5 million. The government, largely reliant on European and Canadian joint-ventures for its boom in hotel construction and renovation, projects 7 million tourists by 2010 — even if the bloqueo remains. (Total joint ventures between Cuba and foreign investors now number approximately 340. There were 50 in 1992. Moreover, total foreign investment, including telecommunications and oil and gas exploration, amounted to $550 million last year. As recently as 1995, it was a mere $80 million.)

“Special Period” concessions that have resulted in an influx of tourists, investors and media — and an infusion of hard currency — have turned doctors, attorneys, engineers and teachers into maids, waiters, bartenders, bellboys and cab drivers. Many moonlight; many more have simply forsaken their formal training altogether. Cuban law prohibits individuals from moonlighting in their professional areas, so doctors, for example, cannot see patients on the side. But there’s no proscription against, say, M.D. maitre d’s or cabbie-neurosurgeons, for that matter.

There have now evolved three classes of people in Cuba: Cubans with dollars; Cubans who can’t get them; and foreigners, mostly tourists, with plenty of them. It’s an increasingly volatile mix.

Besides panhandling, drug-dealing and flesh-peddling, the illegal or “anti-social” means of obtaining dollars are unauthorized rooms to let, unlicensed taxi drivers and a myriad of anti-government scams. These range from fishermen skimming a portion of their catch to sell to restaurants to government cigar rollers selling smuggled, contraband smokes.

Except for those with dollar-dispatching relatives and now friends in America, Cubans’ best chances of legally tapping into the dollar economy are through flea-market vending, farmers’ markets, small (maximum 12 seats), private, in-home restaurants (called paladares) and tourism-related positions that are top heavy in tips. (Merely working for a foreign employer isn’t enough, for the government directly collects Cubans’ salaries in dollars and, in turn, pays the workers in devalued pesos.)

“Some of these (nose-in-the-air gesture) tourists treat us as if we were just (ignorant, lower-caste) brutas,” noted Maria, a pretty and pleasant maid in the histo
ric Hotel Nacional de Cuba in the Vedado section of Havana. “I understand it’s that way in other cultures. But we are not brutas. We just have families to support.”

She was by training, she pointed out, an attorney — and bruta connotation notwithstanding — one of the luckier ones.And then there was Arsenio, a cab driver in his 50s who had been educated as an engineer. He had a prime spot in front of the Nacional — as well as a late model Mercedes. He had a track record for being “honest and punctual” he explained, and that qualified him to bid for the luxury cab, which, in turn, enabled him to work the better hotels.

Arsenio was a veritable tour guide and his insights ranged from the early Soviet years to the current “Special Period.”

The Cuban people, he said, were on to the Russians’ agenda from the start. “They arrived wearing sandals,” he said. “We knew why they were really here.”While he was quite capable of working himself into a geo-political lather over the American embargo, he opined that “Either extreme was not good” meaning the worst of capitalism and the worst of socialism. He chuckled in agreement that both Louis XIV and Robespierre had their failings.

But there was little room for levity in referencing the “Special Period.” His anecdotal accounts included the increased incidence of grave robbings (of older generation Cubans who were customarily buried with their jewelry) to the “apathy” of Cuban youth, who have no memory of the Revolution and are less enamored of Castro than older generations.

“They don’t want to go to school; they want what they see on TV,” said Arsenio. They also see an austere life in the midst of plenty as well as a bleak future continually mocked by socialist slogans and revolutionary rhetoric.

For Castro, the epitome of charisma and emblematic of all that is Communist Cuba, such alienation — not embargoes, CIA plots and the Soviet implosion — is his most formidable challenge in years, maybe ever.

It’s undoubtedly too late to rebottle the genie of tourism, and definitely too late for Castro to change. He made that clear enough late last month when he wrapped up an international economics forum in Havana with a declaration that the current global economy will eventually cease to function. He then predicted that the new world order would be “socialist, communist or whatever you want to call it.”

Some would certainly call it unrealistic as well as the philosophic rantings of one scrambling pragmatically to survive the loss of $6 billion in annual Soviet subsidies.

Too bad Castro never heeded the wisdom of Winston Churchill, whose words more than 40 years ago ring no less true today. “The vice of capitalism is that it stands for the unequal distribution of goods and services,” said Churchill. “The virtue of socialism is that it stands for the equal distribution of misery.”

Unless, of course, you have dollars.