The pro-Juanes Cubans had the bigger flags. They also had the numbers. And they had youth.
And in the end, they had Versailles Restaurant on Calle Ocho, long a stronghold of hardline, right-wing politics in Miami.
When it was over, the aging Cuban exile population that arrived in Miami in the early 1960s and established itself as one of the most influential political forces in the history of Miami was pigeonholed to a street corner across Versailles where they were surrounded on the other three street corners by screaming, chanting and taunting Cubans who fully supported Sunday’s Juanes concert in Havana.
U.S. & World
All the aging exiles could do was destroy blank CDs that had been scrawled with Juanes' name in magic marker to show their disgust for the Colombian singer, who had performed for hundreds of thousands of Cubans in Havana earlier that day.
Perhaps the CD-stomping gesture was meant to be symbolic but the real symbolism ran much deeper.
“They have no voice anymore,” said Alfredo Martinez, a 29-year-old Cuban immigrant who arrived in Miami during the early 1990s.
“This is our time now. We don’t believe in Castro but we believe in Juanes. He did more for Cuba in one concert than they have done in 40 years.”
And that was the sentiment that ran through more than 400 demonstrators that outnumbered the 200 demonstrators who opposed the concert.
Almost all the demonstrators on both sides of the issue were born in Cuba but where they stood on the Juanes concert depended mostly on when they arrived.
It was a monumental – yet unexpected - shift considering the demonstration had been organized by Vigilia Mambisa, the right-wing group that has been accused of intimidating opponents through scare tactics, including last year’s Code Pink protest and an earlier protest involving the Bolivarian Youth from Florida International University.
But this time, they were clearly outnumbered.
Over the course of several hours, tempers flared, threats were made and some people even came to blows.
But the five Miami police officers who were assigned to the protest ended up arresting only a handful of people, including one pro-Juanes protester for allegedly exposing his penis and one anti-Juanes protester for allegedly battering a female city worker.
“They laid off 125 officers last week so all we get is five officers here,” said an officer who did not want to be named. “Imagine if we didn’t have any officers here?”
At one point, police tried to disperse the crowd by wailing their sirens and ordering everybody to go home, but it was to no avail. The pro-Juanes crowd kept increasing, showing up with musical instruments or just pots and pans to bang.
The concert itself was quite a sight, with tens of thousands of spectators showing up for what was believed to be the largest gathering since Pope John Paul's 1998 visit.
The protest began as soon as the concert in Havana ended with members of Vigilia Mambisa standing on the corner of Versailles as they have done so many times before, accusing anybody who does not agree with them of being communists.
But then the younger Cubans started arriving. And they were accompanied by a few older Cubans who said they were touched by the concert. And the momentum of the protest changed.
After a few pushing and shoving matches and several screaming bouts underneath the famous Versailles sign, the hardliners were pushed across S.W. 36th Ave. where they took position on the sidewalk next to Farmacia Luis, even hanging up the Vigilia Mambisa banner on the side of the wall.
And the pro-Juanes Cubans kept multiplying, forcing police to shut down Eight Street because they kept spilling out into the street in front of Versailles. By the end of the protest, the pro-Juanes Cubans occupied the corner of Versailles as well as both street corners on the south side of Eight Street.
But even before that happened, Vigilia Mambisa had removed their sign and went home, leaving the dwindling exile crowd to continue fighting the losing battle.