The heated custody battle over Elian Gonzalez is shining a bright light on the Cuban-American community in Little Havana.
Television images beamed around the world show a community passionate about the welfare of the six-year-old boy - a tight-knit neighborhood in almost universal agreement that the child should stay with his Miami relatives to enjoy freedoms guaranteed by the US Constitution.
But those same television cameras have opened a window to a darker side of Little Havana. Critics say those who disagree with the hard-line opinions of Cuban-exile leaders routinely face intimidation, threats of violence, or outright censorship.
Two weeks ago, police arrested a seventh-grade social studies teacher after, he says, he spat on the ground and told the spokesman for the boy's Miami relatives that "Elian should go home."
The spokesman went to the police, who led Matt Heidenfeld away in handcuffs and charged him with disorderly conduct, punishable by up to 60 days in jail. "I have absolutely no problem with Cuban-Americans or anyone standing up for what they believe in, but I should also have the right to stand up for what I believe in," Mr. Heidenfeld says.
Earlier this week, a single protester arrived in front of the house where scores of Cuban-American demonstrators have maintained an Elian Gonzalez vigil for several months. He carried a poster that read: "Send Elian Home."
Within moments, the young man was lifted off his feet by angry "pro-Elian" demonstrators. Some carried him down the street, while others ripped his sign into small pieces.
The action was recorded by TV crews and later aired, ironically, as Miami Mayor Joe Carollo held a press conference in Washington, denouncing a group of "thugs" who emerged from the Cuban Interest Section in Washington a week ago and attacked anti-Castro protesters on the sidewalk. "Are these the people we want to turn Elian Gonzalez over to during the appeals process?" the mayor asked.
Critics question why the mayor would express outrage about the violation of the rights of anti-Castro protestors but not mention similar free-speech violations in his own city.
"That is the proof of what free speech in Miami means: You can say whatever you want as long as it is what [exile leaders] want to hear," says Eddie Levy, who heads the Cuban-American Defense League, which promotes First Amendment rights in south Florida.
Leaders in the Cuban-American community complain that the intense media scrutiny surrounding the Elian saga is creating a false and distorted image of Miami. They accuse critics of engaging in racism, bigotry, and ignorance. Particularly insulting, they say, are suggestions that Miami has become a "banana republic."
Officials say that, in fact, the city is a de facto capital of Latin America, a booming trade and finance center, and a haven for the hemisphere's political and economic refugees.
Critics say that free-speech concerns arise when Cuba is the issue.
Mr. Levy says that recently after he appeared on a television news program to discuss his belief that Elian should be returned to his father, he was advised by an anonymous caller that he would soon be "floating in the Miami River with a mouth full of lye." Levy adds, "That is free speech in Miami."
Such flareups come amid speculation about whether an anticipated attempt by federal authorities to remove Elian from his great uncle's house can be done peacefully. At press time, a 24-hour vigil around Elian's house, in support of his Miami relatives, continued.
Ninoska Perez, a spokeswoman for the Cuban American National Foundation, says the lone protester who had his sign torn up should have known better than to show up on such partisan turf. "It is a provocation."
John de Leon, Miami president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) agrees. He says police should try to keep protesters of differing views away from each other to permit those with opposing opinions to protest peacefully.
And he says the large protests outside Elian's house may help the Cuban-American community blow off steam. "That is why we have the democracy we have," he says. "It allows people to work these issues out publicly and peacefully. Whereas if they were repressed from doing that, things could get violent."
The state of free speech in Miami has long been a hot topic.
*In 1991, the city tried to shut down a local museum for plans to display art by Cuban artists who had not denounced Fidel Castro.
*In 1992, Cuban-American leaders sued a leading expert in US-Cuban relations for libel in what some analysts say was an attempt to muzzle criticism of Cuban-American lobbying in Washington.
*In 1996, a Miami restaurant was firebombed after it scheduled a performance by a Cuban singer who had not denounced Castro.
*And last week, lawyers working with the ACLU asked a federal judge to strike down a Miami-Dade County ordinance in part because they say it is an unconstitutional attempt to censor artistic expression by banning Cubans from performing at county venues.
Ms. Perez, of the Cuban American National Foundation, defends the local law. "The artists who come from Cuba are ... not free people, they are serving the interests of the Cuban government," she says. "It is a matter of principle and solidarity, it is not about intolerance."
Others disagree. They say the US trade embargo of Cuba exempts cultural exchanges, and that the ordinance enforces a local foreign policy that undermines US foreign policy.
"It is much better than it used to be," says says long-time Miami free-speech advocate Jim Mullins, referring to 1970s bombings of stores selling certain newspapers. "But the intimidation factor has not gone away."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society