Features

The icon and a judge

International | Tossed by the waves of the Atlantic, roiled by ugly international politics, Elián finally gets his day in court

Issue: "Georgia twisters," Feb. 26, 2000

in Miami - Even before Donato Dalrymple speaks, it is plain that the screen version will never do justice to the real-life drama that overtook south Florida when a kindergartner washed ashore Thanksgiving Day. Mr. Dalrymple, 39, arms tattooed, was one of two cousins fishing off Pompano Beach north of Miami when he caught sight of a limp boy barely hooked to an inner tube. Elisabet, Elián's mother, dressed her son in bright orange, just so someone like Mr. Dalrymple and cousin Sam Ciancio would find him if tragedy struck. When Mr. Dalrymple saw Elián, the boy had been floating alone in the waters between Cuba and the United States for over two days. Dolphins surrounded him. Mr. Ciancio dove in for the boy, and Mr. Dalrymple pulled him into the boat. "This was beyond a shadow of a doubt my eyes being opened and used by God," Mr. Dalrymple told WORLD. A self-described charismatic, he did 10 years of missionary work in Africa before, he says, he "got away from evangelistic work." He was running a home-cleaning business in Fort Lauderdale when Elián Gonzalez upended his life. "It was not easy out on the water that day. It was the kind of feeling where the hair on my body stood up. God said, 'I can still use you. You absolutely did nothing. I can use your hands and your feet.' It was a miracle for me, as well as for Elián." Elián Gonzalez has been compared to Moses among the bulrushes. He has become the folk hero of Little Havana. He has attained icon status in both U.S. and international media. But now he is expected to get something that has eluded him ever since Mr. Dalrymple and Mr. Ciancio brought him ashore three months ago: his day in court, which could come any day now. Lawyers for Elián's Miami relatives are set to argue against a Jan. 6 decision by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which said that Elián must be returned to Cuba and to his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez. Led by Elián's great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, the relatives filed suit to block the INS decision. They contend that Cuban President Fidel Castro has pressured the father to demand Elián's return, and are intent to prove to U.S. District Judge William M. Hoeveler that Elián's best interests will be served if he remains in the United States. Underlying what is sure to be a tense but sterile proceeding will be the taut emotions outside the courtroom. Miami's Cuban community overwhelmingly favors a decision that allows the boy to remain in the United States, while its non-Hispanic population-along with most of the rest of the country-believes the boy should be returned to his one remaining parent. Miami's non-Cuban residents, who are vastly outnumbered by Cubans and other Hispanics in Dade County, say Cubans receive too much preferential treatment from the U.S. government already, and the best interests of the boy have been overwhelmed by the politics of U.S.-Cuba relations. Prior to the hearing, the burst of public demonstrations in downtown Miami died away. Vigils outside the Gonzalez home grew less frequent. Two portajohns at the curb and a new security fence are the only indicators of the extravagant attention paid the 6-year-old celebrity who lives in the small, sun-worn home in a working-class neighborhood of Little Havana. But that public energy has only burrowed itself deeper into the Cuban-American community, which sees the Gonzalez case as a test of whether the American dream or a Castro summons will be triumphant. "We have a community where at least 100,000 people came here on rafts, just like Elián and his mother. They took a risk that has changed their lives forever," said Tom Willey, a missionary to Cuba before the Castro era, who now resettles Cuban immigrants in Miami through the Christian aid group World Relief. Many came over as children, like Elián. Some watched family members die along the way. Many endure family separation. Working counter to those collective experiences are the wheels of procedure. In court, attorneys for the INS are expected to follow the script laid down by Attorney General Janet Reno in a Jan. 12 letter to attorneys for the relatives. In it, she said, "The question of who may speak for a six-year-old child in applying for admission or asylum is a matter of federal immigration law." Immigration officials rejected the asylum applications for Elián, she said, because they "found no objective basis for overriding the father's wishes for his son." Further, the INS rejects any other jurisdiction, including both federal and state courts. In papers submitted to Judge Hoeveler, INS and Justice Department attorneys argue that the federal court "recognizes the well-established principle that agency decisions ... are generally not subject to judicial review." The relatives' attorneys say that is not due process. They will first have to prove that the court has jurisdiction. Then they will ask the court to direct INS to give Elián an asylum hearing. As evidence, they are expected to assert that INS ignored its own guidelines for children's asylum claims, as outlined in a January 1998 memo. Those guidelines allow for claims independent of parents and instruct asylum officers to create "a 'child-friendly' asylum interview environment" so that an under-18 applicant may present his or her own case. But Elián was not granted an asylum interview. INS officers interviewed his father in Cuba, and later, his relatives in Miami, but did not interview Elián, even though he submitted an application for asylum. A ruling in the relatives' favor will likely mean more weeks of legal procedures. A ruling to dismiss their lawsuit, however, could quickly begin the final steps toward Elián's deportation. The judicial proceedings are not likely to touch on the political calculations that leaders in Cuba's exile community say have been driving INS decisions. They believe that immigration officials were not prepared to rule against Elián's asylum until Mr. Castro issued an ultimatum for his return and sent demonstrators into Havana's streets. Prior to that, in a Dec. 1 statement, the INS said it would defer to Florida state courts in determining who should have custody of Elián. But on Jan. 11, Attorney General Janet Reno announced that a temporary protective order by a state court, which gave custody to Lazaro, had "no force or effect." The Florida court is expected to rule again on custody in March, but Ms. Reno has already said a ruling there has no effect on Elián's case. Ms. Reno ruled that only Elián's father could "speak for the child," in spite of clear signs that Juan Gonzalez has been coerced by the Castro regime. Although he called Florida relatives to ask that they look after Elián, Juan Gonzalez later denied any advance knowledge of his son's departure. Family members say he had on several occasions expressed an interest in coming to the United States. He said he would sell his car in order to pay for passage, and had done so just prior to Elián's own voyage. Now Juan Gonzalez has a new car, apparently a gift of the state. And he has refused to come to the United States at the government's request, saying that U.S. immigration officials should bring Elián home to him. Some Cuban-Americans also believe the Clinton administration may have struck a deal with Mr. Castro. Six Cuban prisoners were deported to Cuba earlier this month after rioting at a jail outside New Orleans and holding hostages for six days in mid-December. "I believe Castro asked for something in exchange for taking back the prisoners, and I believe it was Elián," said Cuban-American activist Jose Basulto. Mr. Basulto runs Brothers to the Rescue, a volunteer organization of pilots who for years have run search-and-rescue missions across the Florida Straits, looking for Cubans who attempt the treacherous crossing. Four years ago Cuban MiG pilots shot down two planes, killing four volunteers, for crossing into Cuban airspace, although an FAA investigation showed that they had not violated the country's territory (see WORLD, Aug. 3, 1996). Mr. Basulto was summoned to search for the boat carrying Elián in the early morning hours of Nov. 25. When Elián turned up later that day, Mr. Basulto met the Gonzalez family and began visiting them regularly. Having plucked several hundred survivors from the same waters, Mr. Basulto said Elián's appearance is "the most irrational and surreal" case ever. One of the surreal elements is a widely circulating story that Mr. Castro consulted a santero, or priest, who told the Cuban president his future depends on Elián. If the child stays in Florida, the story goes, the Castro regime will fall. Santeria is a popular pagan religion in Cuba, brought from West Africa during the height of the slave trade. Experts say there are more Santeria worshippers in Cuba than either Protestants or Catholics. Many immigrants arrive in Florida with a bag full of Santeria gods among their few possessions. Mr. Castro is reportedly influenced by its rituals, if only to further his appeal, even undergoing Santeria initiation ceremonies. Early in his dictatorship, a television spot showed him walking across a river in a white robe, the traditional dress of a Santeria initiate. Mercedes Sandoval, an anthropologist at Miami-Dade Community College, has tried to track the Santeria legends about Elián with experts in both Miami and Cuba. His "exceptional survival," she told WORLD, is fueling lore that Elián is the manifestation of a Santeria god of destiny, who is very powerful but reveals himself in the form of a prankster-like child. "I cannot ascertain if Castro believes this," she said, "but I do know that people who are close to him do believe it." With weeks of courtroom appearances likely ahead for the Gonzalez family, occultic predictions will matter less than the judge's verdict. Most friends speculate that the court will rule against the family and Elián will return to Cuba, unless Congress or his father intervenes. "Unfortunately, there is nothing that anybody can do about it. They can go crazy in the streets, but the law is the law," said Mr. Dalrymple. "I do not believe the boy should be denied his father; but going back means he will have to salute Fidel Castro, and he will have to hear his mother denounced as a traitor."

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Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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