Milagro in Miami?

On TV it's all Elian, all the time. But Cuban exiles and their neighbors disagree about what should happen to the boy who's become a symbol.

Published January 28, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Finally, on Wednesday, the nation watched the much-delayed reunion between Elian Gonzalez, the shipwrecked Cuban 6-year-old who is the subject of an international custody battle, and his two grandmothers. The atmosphere surrounding the meeting had all the flavor of a high-level diplomatic encounter between two warring states.

Because of the relentless media blitz, by now nearly every American knows the tale of the little Cuban boy whose mother drowned along with eight other people as they attempted to sail from the island to the United States. His grandmothers' visit to the United States -- which also made national news -- was an effort to rally U.S. public opinion, lobby Congress and petition the U.S. Justice Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to enforce their decision that the child should be reunited with his father in Cuba.

The visit made national headlines, but nowhere did it monopolize public attention the way it did in Miami. Here the news is all Elian, all the time. It's topic A in bars and in grocery stores. On Wednesday the local networks preempted their regularly scheduled programming to broadcast what they could of the grandmothers' visit and the hoopla surrounding it.

The case is changing dynamics within the Cuban exile community, but also between the Cubans and Miami's white and black residents, who have begun to take a rooting interest in the boy's fate -- but on the opposite side from most of their Cuban neighbors. The issue has plainly exacerbated tensions in what at least one historian has called an "ethnic cauldron."

Of course, the grandmothers came to see Elian on their visit, as well as press their case with American authorities. But Lazaro Gonzalez, Elian's great uncle and now his de facto guardian, would not agree to a private meeting in a neutral location. Gonzalez and his supporters, led by the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), the leading anti-Castro organization in the United States, wanted the grandmothers to come to the Gonzalez's Little Havana home for dinner and a visit with the child in the presence of Miami-based relatives.

The world watched the struggle unfold, the latest chapter in their legal, political and public-relations holy war to keep Elian in Miami. And some of the characters are well known here: Political consultant Armando Gutierrez, the key strategist on the team, is renowned for conducting some of the dirtiest campaigns in a city known for hardball politics. Among his clients: Rosa Rodriguez, the Miami-Dade Circuit Court judge who astonished legal experts across the country when she granted temporary custody to the Miami-based relatives and scheduled a March 6 hearing.

In the end, of course, thanks to INS pressure, Elian got to meet his grandmothers at the Miami Beach home of Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, a Roman Catholic nun in the Dominican order and the president of Barry University, a private institution in Miami.

Sister Leonor Esnard, herself a Cuban-American who came to the United States unaccompanied by her parents in the early 1960s as part of the Pedro Pan program, witnessed the first encounter between the child and his grandmothers after more than two months of separation. "They were trembling, they hugged him repeatedly, they told him how glad they were to see him, they cried," she told reporters.

O'Laughlin described the rumors and mutual mistrust that had to be overcome before the two-hour private meeting between Elian and his grandmothers could take place. "Fear was the greatest element" standing in the way of the meeting, she said. At one point it was discovered that prominent members of the CANF were present in the residence next door to the O'Laughlin house. They were asked to leave so the meeting could be conducted, and they complied, but later complained loudly on Cuban-oriented Spanish-language media. At another point, a cell phone belonging to one of the grandmothers rang. It was believed to be Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, trying to talk to the boy. The cell phone was confiscated.

The grandmothers later flew back to Washington without making a statement. But at Lazaro Gonzalez's home, his 21-year-old daughter Marisleydis -- who has assumed a maternal role toward Elian despite having met him only once before his voyage to Florida -- was jubilant. "I feel he is more to this side than that side," she said. Later Elian reportedly told a radio station, "Tomorrow they will make me a U.S. citizen."

In a turnaround that exemplifies the heightened emotions of the situation, O'Laughlin said she feels Elián would be best off in the United States. She told reporters that prior to the meeting, she believed Elián should be with his father -- but that what she had witnessed made her fearful that the Castro government was manipulating both the child and his grandmothers. "What I saw and felt really frightened me for the child," she said. "When I look at the real fear, I say he would grow to greater freedom of manhood here." She blamed both sides for the political manipulation and stressed her political neutrality. "I don't represent pro-Castro, anti-Castro or INS."

The story of Elian Gonzalez began as tragedy. It has degenerated into travesty. How that happened is a question that baffles many Americans, including many of the so-called Anglos and African-Americans who live among the estimated 800,000 persons of Cuban origin who make up the largest ethnic community in Miami's Dade County.

A clear majority of Cuban Americans want Elian to stay in Miami. By a large margin, blacks and Anglos believe he should be returned to his father in Cuba, and almost unanimously reject such tactics as traffic slowdowns. Non-Cuban Hispanics are divided on both issues. Haitians are angry because while no effort is being spared to keep a Cuban boy in Miami, the INS once erroneously deported an American U.S. citizen of Haitian descent -- who then died of AIDS after his condition deteriorated while awaiting a return to Miami.

"Why do they wave the Cuban flag if they want him to stay in the United States?" a "non-Hispanic white American," in the local bureaucratic lingo, asked about the controversy. To understand, it helps to know about what the late Cuban-American writer and filmmaker Miguel Gonzalez-Pando called "Cuban exile country." It's a state of mind with a center: Miami. Here the exiles feel they have reconstructed a Cuba more real than the one 200 miles to the south warped beyond recognition by communism.

This ersatz Cuba functions with its own institutions and by its own rules and logic, within which what looks like blind intolerance by the rest of the world is seen as patriotism. In the "Cuban exile country," an ersatz family who will raise a child as an anti-communist is better than a real family that will bring him up in the ways of Che and Fidel.

This nation in exile blends Cuban and American aspects; sometimes the result can be a curious concoction. In Miami, Elian Gonzalez is attending a private school called Lincoln-Marti, after the U.S. president and the Cuban national hero. It's owned by Demetrio Perez, a fiercely anti-Castro exile who is a member of the local school board. In Perez's school, children receive political indoctrination nearly as crass as in Cuba.

The battle for Elian now moves to Congress and the federal courts. In the end, if law and logic prevail, the child will be returned to his real family on the island. When it comes to Cuba, however, passion and politics have so often ruled during the last four decades that just about anything except a quick and sane solution is possible.

According to U.S. and international law, given plenty of evidence that Juan Miguel Gonzalez was a very involved parent and no evidence that he was in any way unfit, Elian's return to Cuba should have been automatic. But he is too powerful a symbol. The CANF first printed a poster of Elian soon after his rescue, to use as propaganda against Fidel Castro when it was thought the Cuban leader might attend last year's World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. The boy's very survival is depicted as a milagro, a miracle that proves the superiority of the exiles' claim to him -- and to Cuba -- over Castro's.

Of course the exiles have been dehumanized by their Cuban government adversaries, who have described them as "worms," "scum" or the "Miami Mafia." Still, their claim on Elian defies the awesome weight of law, logic and the parental bond. They have worked hard to expose Elian to the media, hoping the community and the country will bond with the adorable child and not want to let him go to a communist country. They want to show how well he is adapting, and how well he will live in the land of Disney. They've induced the child himself, who by now may be suffering from Stockholm syndrome, to say he wants to stay in the United States, even if that means being separated from his father, his four grandparents and his schoolmates.

But beyond their own community they are losing the battle of public opinion. Psychologically inclined Americans have come to describe it as "child abuse." Outside of far-right Republican circles, they have failed to make the issue Fidel vs. freedom. Most Americans -- no Castro dupes -- instinctively value the rights of a father and four grandparents who had raised the child above those of a great uncle and his family who hardly knew the child two months ago.

But the Cuban exile country will not give up its claim. Normally, it would have no standing in the case, and in fact Attorney General Janet Reno said Judge Rosa Rodriguez's ruling on the Miami family's behalf had "no force or effect." Normally, federal jurisdiction supersedes state jurisdiction in such immigration cases. But nothing is normal when it comes to this case, or to the tangled triangle fatally linking Cuban exiles, the U.S. government and the 41-year-old regime of Fidel Castro.

By Max J. Castro

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