Cover Story

Back to no future?

For Miami's Cubans, the conclusion to the celebrated custody case is a grim beginning for young Elián Gonzalez

Issue: "Back to no future," April 22, 2000

in Miami - It could have been a tailgate party. Street vendors moved in along 24th Avenue in Little Havana, serving a capacity crowd with Cuban specialties like arepos (fried cheese) and marinated pork kabobs. Entrepreneurial neighbors carted coolers to the curb, selling soft drinks. One Cuban-American, Onix Morera, bargained with a resident who was hawking Cuban flags on a stick for $5. "I will pay only $3-three dollars," she said. Street-goers by the thousands hoisted banners, keeping one hand with a transistor fixed to an ear. In what many here believed to be the final week of Miami's Elián Gonzalez drama-even as the government blinked at its own April 13, 2:00 p.m. deadline-the festive atmosphere covered for a weary and at times despondent cast of thousands. Despite the community's show of support for Elián and his Miami relatives, marchers and family members alike knew the end was near. "Smile!" Mrs. Morera called out to a sunburned cameraman who rounded the corner where she was waving her flag, "you are making money on us." Mrs. Morera is like so many in this crowd. She came to the United States in 1961, just after Mr. Castro took power, separated from most other members of her family. She raised two sons in Little Havana. One is a policeman patrolling the crowded streets around the Gonzalez home. She can recite the details of Elián's amazing rescue off the Florida coast on Thanksgiving Day, and she talks about his family as if they are her own. And she is convinced Mr. Castro, who forced her family from its home, is now controlling the future of Elián. What is worse for her, both the government and American public opinion have turned against her community. "I think that Castro is blackmailing Clinton," she said. "This is a big, strong country and they are scared of a banana island." For the Gonzalez family in Miami, it was a mostly downhill roller-coaster ride of a week. State court judge Jennifer Bailey refused April 10 to expedite a custody trial for Elián. That same day, Justice Department officials sent two psychiatrists and one psychologist to Miami, but refused a family request that they interview the 6-year-old Cuban who was the subject of their journey. On April 11, family members expected a letter from Attorney General Janet Reno, outlining how Lazaro Gonzalez, the boy's great-uncle, should go about handing over Elián. That same day, Miami Mayor Joe Carolla and the mayor of the Miami-Dade metro area, Alex Penelas, traveled to Washington to meet with Ms. Reno. They asked her to give family members 30 days to transfer custody of Elián to his father. She seemed agreeable, but by April 12, the Justice Department had solidified plans to order a custody handover, to begin at nearby Opa Locka airport. When the order was announced in the early morning hours of April 13, Lazaro Gonzalez said he would not comply, and the community braced to support him in his defiance. Ironically, Little Havana is not as full of Cubans as it once was. Since the 1980s Central Americans and Haitians have taken up residence here, while some Cuban residents have moved out and up, to upscale suburbs like Coral Gables. Still, the immigrant experience is what unifies the community, and for the Cuban exiles, the communist experience in particular. If the community is more united, it is also more at odds with American opinion at large. Most Americans believe Elián should be returned to Cuba with his father, polls show, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the totalitarian government in Cuba was controlling the events surrounding Juan Miguel Gonzalez's arrival in the United States and perhaps even his desire to take the boy home. "The people in Wyoming and Seattle, places like that, they don't want to know what is happening here," said Nancy Tobias, another Cuban-American who immigrated shortly after Mr. Castro took power. "It is frustrating that they want to send Elián to Cuba like a package." Josef Tobias, her husband, escaped communism in Hungary in 1966, about the time she fled to the United States, where they met. For the Elián demonstrations, he sewed a large canvas Hungarian flag to show solidarity with the Cuban-American community. Its red, white, and green stripes stood out against a sea of Cuban and American flags when thousands of demonstrators swelled residential streets around the Gonzalez home for a final prayer vigil on April 10. Smaller and more subdued than a vigil on March 29 that drew 30,000, the gathering nevertheless pulled thousands into the street, most carrying homemade signs. One group paraded a lifesize Castro doll, wearing a bra over combat fatigues. A united front by Catholic leaders and evangelical pastors from the community has been the unheralded reason for calm in Little Havana's long ordeal over Elián. A group of 12 clergymen, six Catholic priests and six Protestants, have successfully corralled street-level passion around organized prayer and Scripture reading. Francisco Santana, the Gonzalez family's Cuban-American priest, leads the group. He also has regularly conducted private mass inside the home of Lazaro Gonzalez since Elián's arrival. The clergymen say their position, like many in the community, has been misrepresented in the press. "Only God knows what is best for this child," Mr. Santana told WORLD. "If the government tells us that he must be transferred to the father, we are going to pray that that will be done in a civilized way. We want nothing to hurt the child. That is the point of view of Maryslesis [Gonzalez, daughter of Lazaro and, in effect, Elián's surrogate mother] and the family, and I have known them for a long time," he said. The Protestant pastors are openly frustrated with the efforts of the National Council of Churches to orchestrate Elián's return to Cuba and to lobby on Mr. Castro's behalf. The NCC and other mainline agencies continue to raise money as part of a "humanitarian advocacy fund" to pay for the legal fees of Greg Craig, the former Clinton impeachment attorney. The NCC hired him to gain "fair and equal treatment for the father of Elián Gonzalez," according to a press release from the United Methodist Board of Church and Society. Manuel Salabarria, a member of the community leadership from the Presbyterian Church in America, said the pastors in Little Havana feel they have been victimized by the NCC efforts. "They are taking this prerogative as agencies; they are not the church," said Mr. Salabarria. The crowd outside the Gonzalez home included increasing numbers of non-Cubans. Steve Sigurdson of Fort Lauderdale joined the street crowds "to see what this is all about." The 33-year-old cellist with the Florida Philharmonic said, "There are a lot of Cubans in our orchestra ... but there are not nearly enough Americans here." Because of the Clinton administration's handling of the case and public misperceptions, he said, "unfortunately, the American people are going to be seen as pro-Castro from now on." Already that is the view here. "Everyone calls [former Chilian head] Augusto Pinochet a dictator," said Antonio Tella, who worked in the Castro regime before he says he escaped Cuba in 1960. "But no one calls Castro a dictator anymore. It's 'President Castro,' as if he were elected." For Cuban-Americans who have lived the losses brought by Mr. Castro's takeover, the Elián Gonzalez case is a referendum on a dictator. "The human tragedy of it all is that as much as you would try to pull the politics out of it, the politics are there," said Jeanne O'Laughlin , the Dominican nun and college president who has pushed for Elián to have a day in court (see story, below). "We want to be law-abiding people, but it doesn't lessen the pain of an exile community who sees that every day people in Cuba take to the seas. What would drive you to the sea? We cannot even fathom that kind of fear." Processing that experience does not stop with Elián. Since last October, according to U.S. Border Patrol statistics, 722 Cubans have come ashore. A group of 35 was taken into custody after making it to land in the Florida Keys April 9. The group-14 men, 10 women, and 11 children-left Cuba in a 30-foot wooden boat, and all survived the 90-mile voyage across the Florida Straits. They were taken to an INS detention center west of Miami, where they will likely be held for a time then paroled into this country. Under current U.S. immigration policy, Cuban refugees who reach land usually are allowed to remain in the country and apply for asylum. That is part of the immigration law the Cuban exiles in Miami see applied daily, which makes it hard to understand why Elián would be sent back to no future.

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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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