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Looking like a battered Spencer Tracy, 49-year-old Julian Jorge Reyes stands beside his 1985 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme in the parking lot across from Domino Park in Miami's Little Havana. At 3 a.m. the bright lights on the marquee of the newly renovated Tower Arts Center theater turn the gray at his temples silver. The glow of his white jeans and plain, cotton T-shirt is broken only by a thin black cloth tied around his left arm.
"This is my battle armor," Reyes says.
Hanging from a metal rod on the car's roof, a roll of white butcher paper covers the enormous rear window and trunk. Reyes, who emigrated from Cuba to the United States in 1994, has written a series of what he calls news bulletins in boldly colored Magic Marker. Opposed to Spanish-language radio's nostalgia-mongering, this veteran of Castro's prisons has launched his own imaginary emisora, his own station.
Lying flat on the ground in the shadow of the Cutlass's dented rear bumper, the first news item on the butcher paper asks: "For Cubans only: How can you explain your energetic protest here, when during 41 years in Cuba you never made a peep against the tyrant Castro?" News bulletin number two adds: "(More important than No. 1) For all who wish to express their views, here is paper and ink enough for everyone. I hope that what you write will contradict me."
The driver of a white Jeep slows down to read the signs. A scrawny young man with the beginnings of a mustache parks, hops out, and puzzles over Reyes's statements.
Cocking his head to one side, Reyes tells the young man: "What I thought I was going to find [in South Florida] was false." Dropping his jaw, he continues: "What you have here is Fidel inside out. It's exactly the same thing, but inside out."
The young man mulls over Reyes' words, then takes a marker from the cup on the roof and writes: "After a beautiful day I ran into a stranger. I don't know who he is but I do know that I curse the day I met him."
Drawing a pair of tortoiseshell glasses from his pocket, Reyes reads, then nods approvingly. "Good," he says in English as he shakes the youth's hand. "You have very nice handwriting."
A rusty Cadillac with tinted windows cruises slowly down Calle Ocho (Eighth Street) blaring gangsta rap. Two men in their early twenties, wearing sleeveless T-shirts and dark sunglasses, peer out the window at the Cutlass, stop, then continue down the street. At the next block, they pull over in front of a transvestite prostitute.
Drawing closer to Reyes, the Cuban youth asks: "Do you think [those men] could be dangerous?"
"Naw," says Reyes, pulling off his glasses and sucking on the end of one of the earpieces. "To tell you the truth, I'm a little bored with Miami. People say they're going to kill you. They circle their cars around like they're going to kill you. But in the end they never do kill you. They know I'm crazier than they are."
To prove the point, he whips the upper row of his teeth from his mouth. Holding the dentures up in the light, he asks, "Do you know how many times I've had my teeth kicked in?"
Unafraid of the consequences Reyes has waged his quixotic crusade for democracy on both sides of the Florida Straits. Born in Cuba on January 28, 1952 -- the anniversary of the birth of the island's most celebrated patriot, José Martí -- Reyes grew up in a household where revolutionary philosophy was a religion. As a teenager Reyes proved his socialist mettle by overseeing volunteer work in his neighborhood Revolutionary Defense Committee. In 1971 he wed one of the beauty queens of the Havana Carnival. After graduating with a degree in agricultural engineering in 1978, he went to work cultivating avocados and aromatic plants.
Within two years the earnest young revolutionary turned dissident. Reyes first became disillusioned when he learned that political connections allowed his incompetent supervisor to remain in power. After transferring to another post in a research lab, he discovered his superiors were embezzling with the tacit approval of the Communist Party.
"I realized in 1980 that there were only two options," he recalls. "I could either look the other way, or I could oppose the government." So he quit and took on odd jobs in carpentry, gardening, and fishing because, he explains, "I refused to contribute any more of my labor to the state."
Reyes dedicated the next few years to studying Cuban history and making contact with dissidents. Viewing clandestine activity as capitulation, he opted for open, if eccentric, opposition. In his white uniform with black arm band, he rode through the streets of Havana from 1987 through 1988 on a Soviet-made bicycle bearing metal plates engraved with the word perestroika.
At the end of 1988, he embarked on what he believed to be a suicide mission. He separated from his wife, sold his car and all other possessions, and hosted a farewell paella dinner for his family and friends. Then on December 8 he attended a speech by Castro in Havana's Revolution Square, a white spot amid hundreds of thousands of socialists wearing blue-and-green uniforms. As el comandante justified the casualties sustained in the failed Angolan war, Reyes held aloft two poles on which he had mounted two white bed sheets, emblazoned front and back with the words: We all have the right to speak.
In a cardboard box in his Little Havana apartment, Reyes keeps a copy of the transcript of Castro's Angola speech published in the Cuban state newspaper Granma. Red marks show where Reyes believes he interrupted Castro's train of thought as he walked through the crowd with the white sheets billowing like sails. One of those citations reads: "All those who promote and commit social indignities are members of the enemy." Even more interesting to Reyes than the dictator's censure was the crowd's reaction. "No one stood in my way," he marvels. "No one tried to pull the sign down."
By the time he reached the edge of the crowd, state security officers detained him, he says. "A whole group of them piled on top of me, hitting and kicking," he laughs. "But it's just like you see in cartoons. The people on top just hit each other; the guy on the bottom comes out OK." The police confined Reyes to the Mazorra Psychiatric Hospital. "People there were really crazy. They would fight over food and smear themselves with excrement," he remembers. "But within three days, I had them cleaning up the patio. I set up a food-distribution system -- and I ate first. I was the king of the crazies." Twenty-five days later, hospital authorities informed him that he had rested enough. "It was not to their advantage to have me there."
After his release Reyes continued to agitate against the regime. In 1991 he lodged a formal complaint with the National Assembly denouncing Castro as a traitor. That same year he distributed fliers for a protest in the Revolution Square. As a result he was sent to prison from 1991 through 1994; Amnesty International even declared him a prisoner of conscience. When he completed his sentence, the United States granted him political asylum. Settled in Nebraska by a Catholic social service organization, Reyes worked as a day laborer until he had earned enough money to repay a resettlement loan. He continued working until he could pay for his two daughters, his ex-wife, and her current husband to leave Cuba.
"No one in Nebraska knows anything about Castro or Cuba," Reyes points out. "Once I had taken care of my family, I headed to Miami. From all the radio I'd heard while I lived in Cuba, I thought there were compatriots here I could join to topple that monster."
Reyes lives alone in an efficiency apartment in Little Havana. "I sent my daughters and their mother to Nebraska," he says. "I don't have any other female companion. I have friends, but I tell them not to come here because I don't want any stray bullets meant for me to hit them."
He makes a living doing occasional construction jobs that he finds through an agency called Labor Ready. "I like it because there's no commitment," he explains. "When I get my mustard up, I can do my own thing. Once my rent is paid, I'm a dangerous man."
In the yard between the main house and the back building, where Reyes lives in one of four apartments, is a pile of discarded appliances, abandoned auto parts, and old shopping carts. On the walls inside his residence are two hardware-store calendars and a Cuban flag hanging in an open closet.
On the closet shelf, a box is decorated with a crayon drawing of another Cuban flag. It is full of documents. Neatly bound in three-hole-punch folders, the fourteen pages and ten appendixes of his "Plan For Liberation" outline strategies for defeating the socialist Cuban government and creating a new state based on the philosophy of José Martí.
Wide-rule notebooks contain drafts of these works and of the many signs Reyes has displayed throughout Miami, as well as notes on his frustrated attempts to communicate with exile leaders. Between construction jobs Reyes spent his first year in the exile capital hand-delivering what he calls "elegantly packaged" copies of his plan to opponents of the communist regime in the local media and political organizations.
"I was sure that people here wanted to end the situation in Cuba," he insists. "But what they say on the radio is false. Here there are millions of dollars to be made, all based on this nostalgia for Cuba. All you have to do here is say Benny Moré and people go weak at the knees. But if that nostalgia ends ." He pauses then makes a whooshing sound like water being sucked down a drain.
"Do you know how many exiles have fattened their asses by attacking Castro? The people here criticize Fidel, but ." He stops, then, as if addressing his enemy, continues: "You are defending your own interests, sir."
Reyes believes the campaign to keep Elián Gonzalez in the United States is an opportunistic effort to manipulate the Cuban exiles' nostalgia for their homeland. The Miami family's supporters prohibited free speech in Miami and provided cover for Castro to crack down on dissidents on the island.
As the struggle over Elián escalated, Reyes mounted a counter campaign with his Magic Markers and signs. "Did you know," asked one cardboard bulletin, "that your attitude is annihilating dissidents in Cuba?"
On April 25, when exile leaders called a work stoppage to protest Elián's removal from the home of his Miami relatives, Reyes walked through Little Havana wearing a sign that said, "Today I want to work like a horse."
When he propped up the sign in front of Radio Mambí (WAQI-AM 710), the Spanish-language station in downtown Miami where announcers had called the strike, Reyes says a police officer approached him. "He told me, as a Cuban, that he thought I should take down the sign."
"What?" Reyes recalls asking. "What did you say? 'As a Cuban?' If you're telling me as a police officer I have to put down the sign, it's already gone. But if you're talking to me as a Cuban, then let me tell you, I'm going to make ten more signs."
During the month that followed, Reyes took up his customary spot in front of Domino Park, going without sleep for days at a time to display his signs. On June 4 and 5, he launched what he calls his "final transmission." Taped to the back of his Cutlass, one sign declared: "If it's true that in Cuba I came to realize that there is dictatorship, it is also true that I have learned, much to my chagrin, that there is another dictatorship here. The two share more similarities than differences."
A second sign read: "Vengeance and hatred are two elements typical of both these dictatorships, as is the nearly maniacal desire to drag everyone else (the great majority) into sharing the dictator's beliefs."
A third sign carried a quotation from Martí: "Respect for the liberty and beliefs of others, even of the most lowly, is in me fanaticism. If I die, or am killed, it will be because I have defended this principle." Beneath the citation, Reyes added his own observation: "This maxim of the Cuban apostle has been and continues to be trampled upon by both Cuban dictatorships."
Crouched at a construction site the afternoon after this final display, Reyes announces that he will return to Cuba. "I have done everything I can do here," he explains. "The next stage is back there." Having lived more than five years in the United States, he can apply for a visa to visit family members remaining on the island. Once there he plans to resume his resistance from within.
"The only problem would be if [Castro] reads this and doesn't let me in," he tells New Times, smiling. "But it's always more interesting if your enemy knows what you're going to do. Don't you think?"