The last supper

Recounting the negotiators' shocking final hours before the Elian Gonzalez raid.

By Myra MacPherson
May 4, 2000 8:00PM (UTC)
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To hear the huffers and puffers on
Capitol Hill and TV news, you would
think that Janet Reno's raid on the
Gonzalez home to reunite Elian with his
father was the biggest betrayal since
Benedict Arnold. And all those agitated
Miami negotiators, piling up outrage
upon outrage, made it seem as if Reno had
left them in the dark while they were
just minutes away from brokering a rosy
diplomatic ending.

The congressional Republicans bellowed
their rage and cited the shabbily
treated negotiators as one of the reasons
for calling hearings about the raid. Not since Pearl
Harbor had such an attack been
perpetrated, they assured the world.
The hearings were aborted when it
finally dawned on them that they had
learned nothing from the impeachment
fiasco.

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And now, as the true story of the
so-called negotiations that took place
in the final hours leading up to the
raid emerges, it's time to take a closer
look and ask the important question:
Which was the gang that couldn't shoot
straight?

Aaron Podhurst, the chief negotiator for
the Miami family, went out to dinner at
a crucial point in the exchange -- 10:58
p.m. -- just as Janet Reno was faxing a
tough ultimatum that needed to be
discussed, pronto.

It must have been the longest dinner
since the Last Supper. Podhurst didn't
bother to look at the fax, which sat in
his machine in his exercise room, until
2:59 a.m. What was he doing for four
hours besides eating? Push-ups? When the
lawyer finally looked at the page, he
mistook it for another that Reno had
sent at 2:59 a.m., thinking it was
merely a duplicate. By the time
Podhurst finally got around to calling
Reno, she told him the family had only
an hour to meet her offer.

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The naiveti of Podhurst,
University of Miami president Edward
Foote and other civic leaders who came
in at the last minute to help the
family, was most apparent the day before
the raid. At 4:52 p.m. that Friday, the
negotiators faxed the Justice Department
a six-point face-saving proposal for the
Miami relatives, which included a
provision for reuniting the Cuban and
Miami arms of the Gonzalez family in one
cozy hideaway. You can almost picture
it: Elian getting yanked apart from his
father by Marisleysis, who often
gets the vapors, and Lazaro, who has
a history of trouble with
the bottle. Juan Miguel would,
presumably, just sit quietly drinking
tea in the kitchen.

Problem is, there was absolutely no
agreement for transferring custody of
Elian to his father. And again they were
dictating demands that a psychiatrist
and a spiritual advisor "help decide
what is in the best interest of the
child." The negotiators, it seemed,
were the only people on the planet who
had never heard Lazaro's mantra,
"They will have to rip Elian from my
arms."

When Reno didn't answer promptly, they
took it as a good omen, but Reno never
wavered in her demand that Elian be
immediately turned over to his father.
Still, the negotiators didn't seem to
get it. Did they actually think they
were making progress when they were
cutting deals worse than anything the
Gonzalez crew had promised to obey and
then backed down from before? As one
Justice Department official reportedly
said, "What the hell is this?"

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As for lawyers crossing t's and dotting
i's, their vague wording, "We understand
that you have transferred temporary
custody of Elian to his father," was
supposed to mean the Miami family
agreed to this. I can just see a lawyer
for the family tearing this up and
saying, "Gotcha." It would be as binding
as one party in a divorce saying, "I
understand that you are temporarily
taking custody of the Lexus."

Kendall Coffey, a family lawyer who had to resign as South Florida's top federal prosecutor after a scandal involving a $900 bottle of champagne and an erotic dancer, seemed stunned by the raid.

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Minutes before the raid, Coffey said he
thought "that a good and fair agreement
was going to get done."

But some of the other negotiators were
expressing a little less resolve and
were either already asleep or yearning
to sleep -- as we all have in the course
of the past five months -- in the
lead-up to the fateful INS mission.

"Let's just sleep on it," they kept
saying as the deadline came and went.
The terms at 4 a.m. were the same as
they were at 2:59 a.m. and in the 10:48
p.m. fax that Podhurst never looked at:
The family must turn the boy over that
morning to his father. In Washington. Or
else. Yawning in Miami. Some were
sleeping in their expensive and cozy
pads far from Little Havana.
They didn't want to bother Lazaro, who
was also asleep. Where was the concern
over Elian? Why wasn't someone taking
No-Doz?

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"Why can't we go home," whined
negotiator Manny Diaz. "Take a shower,
shave, change clothes and come back at
9, 10 in the morning?" Take in a movie,
bowl a few frames. Be there just when
the crowd was big enough to ensure a
catastrophe.

Although duplicity allegedly prevailed,
Podhurst, Diaz, Coffey and others met at
Lazaro's house around 4 a.m. to tell
everyone that there was trouble. And
everyone inside the Little Havana home
managed to get fully clothed before the
5:15 a.m. raid. As for a display of
excessive force, think again.

Two days before, according to one
source, Lazaro told cheering exile
leaders "they would have to come and get
him so the cameras can catch it all." So
much for passivity. Also, there were not
one, but two men with felony records
acting as lookouts next door who would
alert the family -- and the TV cameras
-- that the gringos were coming. The
feds managed to take the ex-cons off the
premises just before the raid. Still,
another neighbor admitted he was "acting
as [a] lookout."

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It took the feds less than three minutes
to complete the raid, which took place
even though Reno had given the
negotiators more than an hour past the
deadline to come up with something
reasonable. Moments later, Podhurst
led the outrage against his friend
Reno.

And then, oops! As we learned last week,
the Justice Department released copies
of the second
fax and the first fax -- the one that
was attracting cobwebs in Podhurst's fax
machine, which bore an incredible
similarity to the final offer faxed four
hours later.

No, this is not fiction. The facts all
came from a very long
article on what went down
before the raid
in Sunday's Miami
Herald.


Myra MacPherson

Myra MacPherson, former Washington Post reporter, is the author of five books, including the Vietnam War classic “Long Time Passing” and her recent “The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage and Scandal in the Gilded Age.”

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