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Pizano to lead Cuban exiles

Roberto Pizano stood in blood, tied to the same post at which seven men before him died by firing squad. But as he awaited eternity, the riflemen squeezed off blanks in a mock execution, hoping the fear would make Pizano talk.

Pizano lived to escape Cuba after 18 years as a political prisoner and continue his efforts to unseat Fidel Castro from abroad.

Such bravery and sacrifice made Pizano, 55, the runaway victor Saturday when Cuban exiles from Tampa Bay gathered for the first time to elect their own leaders. Pizano, of Tampa, was not present to enjoy his fellow exiles' vote of confidence; he was in Geneva, Switzerland, meeting with United Nations officials about human rights violations in Cuba.

Pizano garnered about two-thirds of the 3,046 votes cast. The next two vote-getters, Orlando Cardoso, 65, and Daniel Martinez, 32, will serve as alternates. Two more men, Vitalia Bequer and Roberto Jorge will serve as members of a council, said Orlando Rodriguez, a retired Army colonel who helped organize Saturday's historic vote.

"The real triumph of is not in direct relation to the number of voters," Rodriquez said. "What makes it so important is that it is the first time we could exercise the right to vote freely in the democratic way and select whoever they feel is the best, most-qualified people to represent them."

The new leaders' mission is to represent Tampa Bay's Cuban exile community at various regional and national political events.

"Nationally, internationally, whereever the cause (of Cuban freedom) is addressed, (Pizano) will speak for the whole community," Rodriquez said.

Pizano left Cuba as a political refugee shortly before the infamous 1980 Mariel boatlift.

He is vice president of the World Federation of Cuban Former Political Prisoners, an organization that boasts 10,000 members nationwide, and about 300 in the Tampa Bay area. Pizano lives in Tampa, and works as a forklift driver a Kash n' Karry warehouse.

"Revolutionaries work for a living," said Ralph Fernandez, a Tampa lawyer who serves as counsel to the federation. "They don't live off the cause."

In 1991, Pizano began beaming Spanish-language broadcasts into Cuba from a pirate radio transmitter at a West Tampa auto wholesaler. The Federal Communications Commission later fined Pizano about $8,000 for operating the unlicensed station. He has refused to pay the fine, an action that could result in criminal prosecution. Fernandez, his attorney in the matter, said the administrative appeals are still pending and that he doubts any federal prosecutor would charge Pizano with a crime.

Rodriguez said Saturday's elections proved that the many groups within the Cuban exile community, some with widely divergent ideas, can work together when the end is the democratic process.