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By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
It was 1976, and Miami's Cuban community was on edge about attacks on moderate voices by hardline exile extremists.
Milian's father, WQBA radio host Emilio Milian, was one of those voices. His voice was effectively silenced that day by a car bomb. Milian's father barely survived, but only after both his legs were amputated.
The younger Milian, who was 16 at the time, says he isn't bitter about what happened to his father, who died last year. He's too busy making sense of it.
"The bombing of my father was a watershed moment in Miami," he said while being interviewed at the Miami offices of the Police Benevolent Association, where Milian is legal counsel and director of political affairs. "It cut his voice and at the same time it allowed other, more intolerant, voices to seize the microphone in Miami."
The would-be assassins were never brought to justice. After reconstructive surgery and learning to walk again with prosthetic limbs, Emilio Milian returned to the radio station. But when the station demanded to censor his editorials, he refused. The station fired him.
"At the time it was called the second bombing," said Milian. "It was also a warning: This is what happens to someone who doesn't adhere to orthodoxy."
The attempted murder of Milian set the tone for years to come. Although Miami is a more politically tolerant place today, for many years the car-bombings and other attacks contributed to a climate of intimidation and fear.
"When his father got his legs blown off, there wasn't a massive outcry," said Dario Moreno, director of the Metropolitan Center at Florida International University. "People kept their mouths shut."
It didn't matter that he was one of Miami's most popular Spanish-language radio hosts.
But Alberto Milian, now 42, has not hesitated to pick up the torch. Imbued with his father's independent spirit, he is making waves in Miami politics again with the Milian name. He often can be heard on the city's Spanish-language airwaves arguing against exile extremists.
In 2000, he ran for state attorney in Miami-Dade County against incumbent Kathy Fernandez Rundle. He lost, but the count (56 to 44 percent) was closer than many had expected.
But Milian is no soft-hearted liberal. Far from it. A registered Republican, he supports the U.S. embargo against Cuba and has no wish to visit Cuba while Fidel Castro is in power. His beef is less with U.S. policy toward Cuba than with the failure of a segment of Miami's Cuban-American community -- including some of its leaders -- to learn to live by American rules.
Milian is an expert when it comes to the American way. A decorated U.S. Army veteran who specialized in counter-intelligence, he served in both the 1989 Panama invasion and the 1991 Gulf War. He earned a Bronze Star in Desert Storm, as well as a citation for meritorious service from the Central Intelligence Agency.
As a Broward County prosecutor in the 1990s, he earned a reputation as a pitbull. He was famously suspended in August 1999 for punching a Fort Lauderdale defense lawyer in the lobby of the courthouse. Milian, who is stocky, alleges he was provoked. "As they say, one thing led to another," he said. "I took the necessary steps to defend myself."
Milian's courtroom outbursts -- branding defense lawyers as "maggots" and "poor excuses for human beings" -- also got him in trouble for prosecutorial excess.
But his former fellow prosecutors in the Broward State Attorney's Office have only kind words for him. "We were sorry to see him go," said Mark Springer, chief of the Career Criminal Unit where Milian worked. "On this side of the arena you need someone who is fair, but you also need someone who is tough. That was Al."
Despite his aggressive -- some say "temperamental" -- attitude, he has earned the respect of South Florida civil rights activists. For example, he went on Spanish-language radio this fall to support a controversial gay-rights ordinance. Many Cuban-Americans wanted it repealed.
"Al is one of the staunchest protectors of freedom of expression in this county, no matter who they are," said Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, president of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Florida. "That puts Al in my book as one of the true purists."
Rodriguez-Taseff, who has debated Milian on a number of occasions, says she disagrees with him on some law-and-order issues, but is always impressed by his arguments. "He doesn't shoot from the hip. He does his homework. Al knows, Al reads, Al understands the issues."
Though he may be a moderate, even a liberal on some matters, he believes in law and order meted out with a firm hand. His office at the PBA is decorated with pictures of George Patton and boxer Rocky Marciano, as well as plaques of appreciation from law enforcement.
He also is a strong advocate of military spending. "We enjoy a great system of law and order because we do have the B-2 bombers, because we do have the real-world James Bonds, because we do have the real-life Dirty Harrys out there," he said. " 'Give peace a chance' is a wonderful concept, but you have to back it up with a lot of artillery."
Milian's aggressive world view is tempered by a passion for philosophy and history. An avid reader with broad tastes, he is as likely to quote George Orwell or Andre Malraux, as lines from British rock band the Who.
Contained in his law-and-order philosophy is a passionate belief in intellectual integrity and independence.
That, he says, has cost him support among exile leaders. His detractors in the Cuban exile community, several of whom declined to be quoted for this article, say Milian is a loud-mouthed populist and a traitor to the exile cause, or a "Cuban anti-Cuban."
He upset some exile leaders recently when accepting a posthumous "Spirit of Miami" award on behalf of his father from the People for the American Way Foundation. While thanking the Foundation, Milian noted that some of the guests in the room had failed to defend his father during his lifetime.
Moments like that hurt Milian's image, said Rodriguez-Taseff. "He is an enigma. He is incredibly brilliant, but hellaciously foolish in how he builds bridges."
According to Milian, Miami's Cuban community is split between what he calls "children of the revolution," who grew up in Cuba and struggle to understood the American way, and "children of exile," who grew up with an American mindset. Milian is neither: Rather, he sees himself as a bridge between the two.
A friend once told him "You think like an American, but you have the passion of a Cuban."
His father's belief in those American values also got him in trouble. "My father was a talented, honest and very courageous journalist," he said. "He was not a professional sycophant; he did not sell his opinions."
On his radio program, El Pueblo Habla (The People Speaks), the older Milian regularly attacked the political corruption and racketeering rife in Miami at the time.
"He was disliked by the corrupt (Cuban-American) political class in Miami because he told it the way it was; he wouldn't coddle them," said his son.
Persistent corruption and unethical political conduct continue to be tolerated by some in the Cuban-American community, he believes. "They have made anti-Castroism a cottage industry," he said of the exile community's political establishment. "They hide behind the Cuban flag, justifying their corruption and misconduct in the name of the (Cuban) cause."
Though Milian may overstate the problem, analysts say there's a strong element of truth in what he says. The paramilitary-style political violence of the '70s has been largely stamped out, but the exile community remains reluctant to condemn those extremists in their midst. "Some people still find it hard to accept having our dirty linen washed in public," says FIU's Moreno. "They don't want to be self-critical. Instead they like to think exile has been golden and that the Cubans made Miami what it is."
Dirty linen is Milian's stock in trade. Last year, after his father became ill, Milian took over his radio show, The People Speaks, which had moved to WWFE La Poderosa after the 1976 bombing. After only a year on the air, he was chosen the "Best AM Radio Personality" by the weekly Miami New Times. But the show was canceled after he criticized a Cuban-American candidate for the Miami City Commission, Angel Gonzalez, who was running despite a conviction for voter fraud.
Milian said he was "morally unfit" for the job. A spokesman for Gonzalez admitted the commissioner paid the station thousands of dollars to buy Milian's time slot. "It happens all the time on Cuban radio," said Gonzalez's chief of staff, Frank Castaneda. "We bought a whole lot of time slots, including Milian's and some others, too."
It paid off, literally. Gonzalez won the election.
In his most recent effort to upbraid anti-Castro hardliners, Milian has publicly criticized a group of local religious leaders for backing four Miami-Cubans jailed in Panama on terrorism charges. They include Miami Bishop Agustin Roman and six other clergy of various denominations. In a letter to the Panamanian government they asked that the four, who are being held as part of an alleged plot to assassinate Castro, be given a presidential pardon. The four men are all suspected of involvement in other acts of political violence. One of the jailed men, Gaspar Jimenez, was indicted in the plot to blow up Milian's father, although charges were later dropped.
"Some in our community say these men should garnish some kind of sympathy because they are anti-Castro," said Milian. "My response is that it doesn't matter who they are against. It matters more what they stand for. If we repudiate the concept of terrorism . . . then we have to turn our backs on them and repudiate their methods."
Milian and others argue that such support for exile extremists is precisely why Miami has earned such a bad name in the rest of the country. He points to a recently published book, Cuba Confidential, by New York author Ann Louise Bardach, which described Miami as "the capital of U.S. terrorism."
In the book Bardach accuses Cuban-American leaders of supporting acts of terrorism against Cuba, including the bombing of a Cuban airliner, also in 1976, which killed 73 people, as well as a more recent series of hotel bombings in Cuba.
"I don't think we are the capital of terrorism . . . but that does not diminish the seriousness of the problem," said Milian. "It does not diminish the fact that we have had people in this community who should know better, that what matters is the principle that the person stands for, and not the simple alliances of being against Castro so nothing that you do can be repudiated."
Milian accuses Miami officials, including State Attorney Kathy Fernandez Rundle, of failing in their duty to crack down on the city's corruption for fear of alienating influential Cuban-American hardliners. He blames former Dade County State Attorney Janet Reno for failing to prosecute the men who tried to kill his father.
Last year he was given permission to review the files of the police investigation into the bombing. He was shocked to find strong evidence against several suspects. Witnesses placed two of the men near the scene of the bombing, according to Milian. Their statements were backed up at the time by lie-detector tests.
"I'm convinced they had a very strong case that could have been prosecuted," he said. "I'm also convinced that politics played a role in the decision not to go ahead. It was a travesty of justice."
Contacted by telephone, Reno said she could not comment on the case without reviewing the file herself.
In 2000 Milian ran for the office of Miami-Dade County State Attorney, losing to Fernandez Rundle, the incumbent. "I wanted a wider platform. I wanted to go after public corruption and organized crime," he said. "I don't buy the excuses anymore."
But critics say he was hand-picked for the campaign by the PBA, whose 6,000 police members regarded Fernandez Rundle as too soft on crime.
Milian denies he is beholden to the PBA. "I'm my own man," he said. "Nobody recruited me."
But even his fans have concerns about his relationship with the PBA. Miami area police forces have consistently come under public scrutiny for alleged abuses. The City of Miami's police chief resigned last month after a scandal involving officers accused of planting guns at the scenes of police shootings.
PBA president John Rivera is one of Miami's toughest political operators and a zealous defender of his fellow cops. Too zealous, some say.
"With Rivera it's 'My cops, right or wrong, forever'," said Jim Mullin, editor of New Times. "Even though I like Al a lot, he is permanently tainted by his ties to the PBA."
Milian defends Rivera and the PBA. "I'm for law and order. I'm not for coddling crooked cops."
He plans to run again for state attorney in 2004.
But will his mouth and his moxie be enough? Even his admirers have their doubts.
"He has a great deal of credibility and he could have a very influential voice in the community," said Moreno at FIU. "But the fact that he is so independent-minded has put him in a very isolated position."
-- Contact David Adams at email@example.com.