Reno's redemption

The attorney general robs Little Havana of its most potent symbol and redeems her last months in office.

By Bruce Shapiro
Published April 22, 2000 11:50AM (EDT)

For now, it is the most famous picture in the world: a U.S. marshal in combat fatigues gesticulating with his rifle toward a terrified Elian, who is in the arms of the fisherman who first plucked him from the Caribbean. But consider that photo again and ask yourself a few questions: How did it happen that Donato Dalrymple was in the Gonzalez house at 5 a.m.? Why was it that Dalrymple was chosen to hide in a bedroom closet with the boy? The answer, of course, is that Lazaro's family knew a raid was likely -- and as they have from the beginning of this story, were determined to milk the moment for all it was worth.

In three minutes before dawn today, Janet Reno did more than return Elian Gonzalez to the custody of his father. The raid by armed INS agents and U.S. Marshals -- what law enforcement officers euphemistically call a "dynamic entry" -- simultaneously ended the exploitative and illegal detention of the boy by his Miami relatives and moved the controversy's center of gravity away from Little Havana's overheated streets.

Seven years ago last week, Reno's disastrous assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco created a symbol. Today's raid did exactly the opposite: Reno removed Elian from symbol-sodden Miami's streets and let him, for a little while at least, be just a child again, reunited with his father away from television cameras, demonstrators, religious visionaries, squabbling relations and politicians.

Of course, Lazaro Gonzalez and Miami's Cubans are not the Branch Davidians; the INS is not the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; and the imperative to restore a child to his father is of a different order entirely from serving a search warrant on a heavily armed religious sect. Reno's choice of this particular weekend to remove Elian from Lazaro Gonzalez was dictated by the timing of court rulings and the goalpost-shifting intransigence of the Miami family.

But coming two days after the triple-anniversary of the Bay of Pigs, Waco and Oklahoma City, at the most solemn moment of Easter week, today's climactic decision offered its own special perils -- ranging from large-scale civil unrest in Miami to violence from well-funded Cuban-American extremists who have not hesitated to employ bombs and guns in years past.

That Reno made this decision at all, say Justice Department sources familiar with her thinking, is largely because Lazaro Gonzalez and his political handlers overplayed their hand. After five months of negotiation, removing Elian took on a new sense of urgency after great-uncle Lazaro refused to allow government psychiatrists to interview Elian last week, instead thrusting the boy into a late-night video session in which he declared he does not want to return to Cuba.

Suddenly, what had been a custody fight more and more resembled a doomed hostage negotiation. Declared Dr. Irwin Redlener, head of the government's evaluation team: "This child needs to be rescued."

Thursday's ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta ordering that Elian remain in the country pending resolution of the asylum claim filed by great-uncle Lazaro only strengthened the case by conspicuously avoiding any stand on the question of his custody.

Mental health professionals who frequently advise the Justice Department say the situation was only going to get worse, with a disjunction between the perceptions of the family and what was apparent to everyone else, and great-uncle Lazaro backed into a desperate corner with everything staked on holding the boy.

And while that case remains on appeal, the outcome is no more likely to please those Miami relatives. As former U.S. Rep. Bruce Morrison, author of the 1990 immigration law under which Elian is making his claim puts it, so far there has been no evidence "to support the idea that Elian has a well-founded fear of persecution," the standard necessary in an asylum case.

That the raid went as well as it did was in part the result of a post-Waco rethinking of such crises among law-enforcement experts. At Waco, the government's failures were multiple and catastrophic, ranging from agencies that didn't talk to one another to negotiators who failed to understand the apocalyptic worldview of the Davidians to officials, including Reno, who did not comprehend the power of seemingly clear-cut law-enforcement conflicts to turn into prime-time theater.

The Elian raid, by contrast, emerged from dozens of workshops and study groups the FBI and other agencies conducted in Waco's aftermath. Instead of a massive law-enforcement sweep in front of crowds and television cameras, the rescue of Elian -- and a hostage rescue is how it was framed -- involved just a handful of officers, and was timed with the precision of D-Day for the quietest pre-dawn moment of a solemn weekend.

In contrast to Waco -- where the welfare of children played second fiddle to the FBI and ATF's warfare mentality -- the clear goal in Little Havana was to remove Elian and get out, placing him in the care of an unarmed female agent until his return to his father. And when Lazaro Gonzalez's Miami handlers published that alarming photo, Juan Miguel Gonzalez responded within hours with photos of Elian reunited with his family, a smile on his face.

"These are new tactics," says Frank Ochberg, a forensic psychiatrist, a veteran of hostage negotiations and founder of the Critical Incident Analysis Group, begun in part to prevent future Wacos by studying law-enforcement crises in their full cultural and political dimension. "Since Waco there has been a lot of upgrading of strategic planning for events like this -- especially thinking about how something like this plays through to people." Great weight, Ochberg says, is now placed on tactics "seen by the general public as rational, reasonable and just" -- rather than projecting mindless force that no matter how justified in the minds of law enforcement looks like overkill to everyone else.

Has it worked? In a flash, the Justice Department's raid-or-rescue changed the political dynamic of what had been a deteriorating crisis by simply extricating the central, motivating symbol -- Elian himself -- from the stage. Suddenly, the demonstrators in Little Havana have no one to chant to, milling angrily but finally aimlessly through the afternoon. Lazaro and company go from jealous guardians of Elian to supplicants at the gate of Andrews Air Force Base. (And don't hold your breath waiting for that much-touted reunion.) Miami's politicians and law-enforcement officials, caught between the Constitution and Castro-haters, were let off the hook, reduced to conventional pleas for calm and the business of crowd control.

And while the enemies of Janet Reno and President Clinton were quick with their condemnation -- Trent Lott said he thought the raid was the sort of thing that happens "only in Castro's Cuba" -- for the most part the media found itself, after the first few hours, without a show, anchors reduced to speculating about Elian's new housing arrangements and the resilience of children. The curtain has rung down on the Elian show.

Legally, the asylum case brought by Lazaro now can proceed in its orderly way through the courts, where his Miami relatives can still try to argue that any return of the child to Cuba amounts to child abuse. That's an unprecedented assertion, as is the idea that a 6-year-old can apply for political asylum. But last week's very limited 11th Circuit ruling keeping the boy in the U.S. does warn just how complex are the conflicting claims of parenthood, politics and policy in the case.

The case, warns Morrison, is all about the "collision of these claims and values and ideas, and no one should think it has an easy resolution."

For Elian himself, there can be little doubt that both the reunion with his father and the privacy of Andrews Air Force Base represent much-needed relief from those all-night crowds outside and the all-night circus inside his foster family's house. He can, perhaps, at last begin the difficult job of mourning his lost mother, whom at last report he believed still alive.

And while his removal from Miami was abrupt, even violent, even that frightening moment represented by the photo should not be overread. "In terms of a 6-year-old's trauma," says Ochberg, "it is much worse to have a house full of care-givers who are depressed and paranoid, than to go through a life-and-death crisis and come out with a strong bond to a parent."

Elian's successful rescue has robbed Little Havana of its most potent symbol. But for Janet Reno, today's cathartic event will remain a symbol that redeems her final months in office. If the attorney general has not quite exorcised the ghosts of Waco, she has at least added a countervailing bookend to her long and troubled tenure.

Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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