Showdown in Miami

Janet Reno's deadline came and went, but Elian stayed put. That didn't stop the city's Cuban-Americans from putting on a Hollywood show.

Published April 13, 2000 11:09AM (EDT)

The drama in the Elian Gonzalez case grew and grew all day Thursday, the colorful horde outside the house getting larger and louder, until you sensed something had to give. And finally it did, when a federal court in Atlanta countermanded the Justice Department and it was decided to not move the boy from Miami, at least not yet.

The surreal scene outside the small stucco home had taken on the look of a Hollywood premiere by then, as Cuban-American celebrities arrived to throw their support behind Elian's Miami family. The crowd included thousands, and those in the front lines oohed, aahed and applauded actor Andy Garcia, singer Gloria Estefan, television talk show maven Cristina Saralegui and countless Cuban-American politicians on cell phones. They all arrived before the 2 p.m. EDT deadline the Justice Department had set for the family to deliver Elian to a local airport, from where he would be flown to Washington to be reunited with his father. But the family had refused and the standoff was on.

Word spread quickly over Cuban radio that Cuban-Americans should report to the little house in Little Havana. All day long, more and more massed around the home of Elian's great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, until thousands jammed the narrow side streets of the neighborhood where the 6-year-old boy has lived since being rescued at sea on Thanksgiving Day. It was by far the largest crowd to gather at the home during months of protests. With the temperature climbing into the 80s, several protestors fainted.

The Cuban community had woken to television reports that included a new feature in the continuing saga: a home video of a defiant and angry Elian, sitting on a bed, munching on a snack and addressing his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez. "I don't want to go back to Cuba," the boy said more than once, occasionally looking beyond the camera to someone else in the room. "I want to stay here." Twice, Elian tells his father, "If you want to, stay here." The edited video was shot by the family, and released to Univision, a Spanish language network.

Some supporters of the boy's father have accused the family of manipulating the child. But that didn't occur to the crowd Thursday. Waving Cuban and American flags, hoisting crucified effigies of Fidel Castro and placards denouncing President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno, the crowd suspiciously watched police helicopters that appeared intermittently overhead, afraid that agents would swoop in and try to grab the child. Rumors ran rampant that federal officials had cut holes in fences behind the house, so exiles surrounded the block to cut off any rear action by the feds.

Government sources have said that if the relatives didn't deliver the boy, the Justice Department would be prepared to eventually send U.S. marshals and immigration agents into the house to remove Elian. Some protestors have vowed to resist, and at least one angry man was arrested before dawn Thursday for attempting to pass through a police barricade in front of the house.

Estefan, who along with Garcia visited Elian inside the house, also insisted that the government not force the child to go back to his father and to Cuba. "We stand together as a Cuban-American community and offer the father sanctuary as well. He will be safe in Miami. He will be safe anywhere coming to get this child because we understand that he is also a victim here," Estefan said. The singer also urged Juan Miguel Gonzalez to accept a proposal suggested by Reno earlier Thursday to reunite with his son at a location in Miami where Elian could remain with his Florida relatives as he readjusted to life with his father.

Wearing a guayabera and sporting a moustache for a role in a new movie being shot in Miami, Garcia begged the crowd for calm. "This is a very delicate issue. I plead to the local community to support this peacefully and in a democratic manner," said Garcia, who was born in Havana and grew up in Miami Beach. "(Elian) has things to say about what his desires are. If (Elian) expresses the wishes to his father to go back, then that's between them. But up until now he's only expressed the wishes to stay here and to seek asylum," Garcia told the crowd.

Famed Cuban-American singer Willi Chirino sang the exile anthem "Our Day is Coming" and the crowd sang along. Cuban-born trumpeter Arturo Sandoval played "America the Beautiful." The crowd applauded them enthusiastically and then it went back to watching the helicopters and chanting "Elian no se va!" ("Elian isn't going") as the deadline passed.

And he didn't go.

Shortly after 3 p.m. EDT, Armando Gutierrez, spokesman for the Miami family, emerged from the house and announced that a federal appeals court in Atlanta had issued a temporary stay of the Justice Department's hand-over order. The stay came barely an hour after the government deadline for the boy's Miami relatives to hand him over had passed.

Deputy court clerk Chris Basnett said the stay was issued shortly after 3 p.m. EDT. It was not immediately clear how long the stay would be in effect, but the government was given a deadline of 9:30 a.m. EDT Friday to respond. A Justice Department spokesman said it expected the stay would cause a three or four day delay before it could execute its plan to reunite the Elian with his family.

President Clinton also weighed in. "I've tried to do everything I can to stay out of it,'' he said in Washington. ''But it is our obligation to uphold the rule of law.''

Gregory Craig, attorney for Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, said after the deadline passed that Elian was being held ''unlawfully ... against his father's will.'' ''Juan Miguel asks that the laws of this nation be enforced,'' Craig said.

Some Cuban-Americans who support the boy being returned to his father also lamented the latest delay. "This isn't good for anybody," said Eddie Levy, well known for his attempts to end the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba. "The boy should be with his father and also we can't have federal laws being applied one way in California and another way here."

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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