Bracing for Hurricane Elian

Miami's Cuban-American community prepares for war against hometown girl Janet Reno.

Published March 31, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

The 62-year-old grandmother wearing a sun visor and holding a parasol outside the house of Elian Gonzalez made the heightening tension in Miami starkly clear. "If what Janet Reno wants is another Waco, she could have it here," Cuban exile Elena Aguilar said Thursday. "We won't let her take the child. Not now, not ever."

Though lawyers for Elian's Miami family met for the second day with the Immigration and Naturalization Service and secured an extension until Tuesday of the deadline for the latest legal proceedings, many Cuban exiles have already come to their own verdict: The legal system under President Clinton and Attorney General Reno can not be trusted, and no matter what the federal courts might decide they say they will not honor those decisions.

"Reno killed children in Waco and Clinton marched with people who burned the American flag during Vietnam," said Aguilar's friend, Maria Alonso, 73. "Who are they to speak about justice and patriotism? If justice is done, the boy will stay here."

Reno has stated that only Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, who wants the boy returned to him in Cuba, has the right to speak for the child, and a federal judge upheld that decision last week. But after a television interview with the boy was screened Wednesday, during which Elian told ABC's Diane Sawyer that he didn't want to go back to Cuba, the resolve of some exiles against federal government grew even firmer.

"You heard what the kid said, he doesn't want to go," said Cuban native Ernesto Taylor, 61. "Show me where to stand so I can take the first bullet. I'll defend his right to stay."

The positions taken by those demonstrators, and by some exile leaders, may make a physical confrontation with federal authorities inevitable -- if the case is not taken out of federal hands. In a move that distanced him from his own administration, Vice President Al Gore recommended such a move Thursday.

"It is a matter that should be decided by courts that have the experience and expertise to resolve custody cases," Gore said. "That is why I am urging Congress to immediately pass legislation that is being sponsored by Senators Bob Graham and Bob Smith -- which would grant permanent resident status to Elian, his father, stepmother, half-brother, grandmothers and grandfather, so that this case can be adjudicated properly."

A key Cuban exile leader shared Gore's position. "What Elian needs is for his case to be returned to family court in Miami-Dade County," said Ramon Saul Sanchez, leader of the Cuban exile Democracia Movement. "Elian should be able to speak in open court and tell a judge what he wants, what his life was like in Cuba, to tell the judge if his father hit him, if his father hit his mother, so that a judge can determine exactly what he would be going back to. That's exactly the kind of day in court that Janet Reno doesn't want to give him, but if the family wants it then we will insist he get that kind of day in court no matter how long it takes. We'll fight for that."

Dozens of supporters kept a vigil Thursday behind police barricades in front of Elian's Miami home. It was a loud, colorful, sometimes angry crowd on that side street in Little Havana. On recent days and nights, demonstrators have practiced creating human chains and sit-ins to block access to the house in case the federal authorities try to remove the 6-year-old boy.

The Cuban community flexed its muscles Wednesday night, when thousands crowded Calle Ocho in Little Havana as part of a candle and flashlight vigil in support of keeping Elian in Miami. The protest was the largest since the boy's case became a cause celebri here. It was peaceful, but it also gave police an idea of how many people might take to the streets in the event of an unpopular resolution to the case.

Miami's arch-conservative and often strident Cuban radio stations were credited with getting the crowd out and have also rallied demonstrators to the Gonzalez's modest, salmon-tinted stucco home and to INS headquarters in Miami. Those same radio stations had a field day Thursday with a plan announced by Fidel Castro that would allow Elian's father to travel to Washington with an entourage of 30 people, including classmates and psychologists, who would accompany the child during the federal appeal process. Radio callers warned of possible Castro plots, including one caller who was afraid the Cuban president would send Cuba's "biotechnology experts" to poison Elian.

Attorneys for the Gonzalez family in Miami have said their clients will obey the law, and demonstrators and exile leaders have said they will honor the family's wishes and step aside if the family asks them to. But it's becoming clear that what the family considers lawful and what the Justice Department is demanding are two different things. Elian's great-uncle and temporary legal guardian, Lazaro Gonzalez, has refused to sign an agreement to turn the child over to authorities if a pending federal appeal goes against him. Exile leaders are depicting the Justice Department's demand as a heavy-handed and unconstitutional ultimatum, and the Cubans on the street agree.

Reno, the former state attorney for Miami-Dade County, is coming under the most bitter attack by the exiles. She responded during her weekly press conference Thursday.

"It's a community I was born and raised in," Reno said of Miami. "It's a community I love. And when it's hurting, it hurts me. This case has been heartbreaking for everybody involved, but we believe the law is clear. The father must speak for the little boy because there is sacred bond that must be honored and the boy must be reunited with his father." Asked if she was prepared to enforce the rule of law, she answered. "You bet."

Miami politics, stormy and insular at the best of times, have grown even more so during the Elian crisis. Miami Cubans have defied both national and international public opinion to insist that the child stay in the United States. Wednesday, 24 mayors from around Miami-Dade County blasted the federal government for charting a path of confrontation with the emotional exile community.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, a Democrat, offered the bluntest criticism: "If their continued provocation, in the form of unjustified threats to revoke the boy's parole, leads to civil unrest and violence, we are holding the federal government responsible, and specifically Janet Reno and President Bill Clinton." Penelas and Miami Mayor Joe Carollo also said they would not allow their police forces to assist federal authorities in any attempt to take the 6-year-old boy from the house.

The comments brought a wave of complaints from some county citizens, especially non-Cubans. The Cuban community has often been accused in the past of disregarding U.S. laws in order to fight the Castro government, and especially of insisting on providing special treatment under immigration law for Cubans, a position that has angered other ethnic groups. Penelas' statement brought accusations that he was endangering the public order.

Seeking to calm a political firestorm Thursday, Miami Police Department spokesman Bill Schwartz clarified that plans are in place to deal with violence. "The mayor meant that we will not participate in any attempt to retrieve the boy from that house, but we are still in charge of keeping public order and we will do so," Schwartz said. "We aren't on high alert yet, but people know what they have to do if something erupts," he said.

The Democracia Movement's Sanchez said something will definitely erupt if the Justice Department attempts to revoke Elian's parole. Sanchez, 46, who says his group has 16,700 names on its membership rolls, stands to be the most visible and influential exile leader on the streets if things turn nasty.

A former member of two violent anti-Castro commando groups, Alpha 66 and Omega 7, Sanchez spent four and a half years in federal prison in the 1980s on contempt of court charges, after he refused to testify about an attempt to murder Castro during a visit to the United Nations. During that prison stay he studied the writings of both Gandhi and Martin Luther King and emerged as a believer of nonviolent political action.

Sanchez said his group would try to block any attempt to reunite the child with his father before all the legal options have been explored. He said the procedures already underway in federal courts would not be enough.

"We have civil disobedience actions planned," said Sanchez, whose organization has blocked highways in the past in support of exile causes and provoked great irritation in both public officials and many county residents. "First we will form a human chain around the house. Then we are considering blocking the airport; either sending hundreds of cars that will drive very slowly and block access there, or maybe even to stage sit-ins. We would stage sit-ins at key intersections downtown and also the Port of Miami, especially on Friday when the cruise ships are due to leave."

By John Lantigua

John Lantigua is a Miami freelance writer. He shared the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for his work at the Miami Herald. Lantigua's fifth novel, "The Ultimate Havana" will be published next year by Signet.

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