Local journalists covering the Elián Gonzalez saga have taken a pounding in Miami. Newswoman Bernadette Pardo of television station WLTV collided with her own photographer while leaving the federal courthouse where the 6-year-old Cuban boy's case was heard last month. She was taken to the hospital with a head wound and received stitches. She returned to the air in time for the evening news, wearing a prominent bandage. In front of the Gonzalez home, a Fox 7 cameraman fell in the crush of the crowd and was taken away in an ambulance. Others complained so much about having to leave the scene for facilities at a nearby Burger King that portajohns were delivered to the corner of 2nd Street and 23rd Avenue near the Gonzalez home.
For reporters covering the news from Havana, it is the same, as the saying goes, only different. Last year the Cuban government detained 40 out of 100 non-government Cuban journalists. Plainclothes security agents seized tape recorders and cameras as they took the journalists into custody. At least two reporters were evicted from their homes. Persistent harassment forced 10 Cuban journalists into exile. Government agents threatened them and others with prosecution under a 1999 law that further restricts freedom of the press in Cuba. It sets prison terms of up to 20 years for those who send reports abroad that are deemed to support pro-U.S. sentiments in any way. A Cuban court sentenced journalist Jesus Joel Diaz Hernandez to 4 years' imprisonment for "dangerousness." Another court sentenced Cubapress correspondent Mario Gonzalez Castellanos to 2H years in prison for showing disrespect to Fidel Castro.
The details of those incidents were contained in two recent and respected reports: the U.S. State Department's annual report on human rights and a bulletin from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Both reports warn of similar threats to foreign correspondents working in Cuba. Last year Ricardo Alarcon, a key Castro advisor and the head of Cuba's legislature, threatened accredited foreign journalists with 20-year prison sentences if they published information "deemed to serve U.S. interests."
Cuba's constitution decrees that all forms of print and electronic media are state property. The Communist Party controls all media "as a means of indoctrinating the public," according to the State Department report. News outlets are regularly denied access to mass printing equipment. The regime continues to jam U.S.-operated Radio Marti and Television Marti.
Examining the course of the Elián Gonzalez case in light of the limitations to free speech in Cuba helps to explain why Mr. Castro has gotten such good press throughout the 6-year-old boy's ordeal. Reporters in Havana are clearly intimidated into following the party line when it comes to Elián. Journalists are among the few professional categories exempt from the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, a privilege risked by independent reporting.
But more significantly, news organizations like CNN, with journalists operating in Cuba, want to preserve good relations with Mr. Castro in order to hold onto their Havana bureaus-and keep their reporters out of jail. Only this time, they feel no obligation to issue disclaimers, as CNN regularly did during the Persian Gulf war, when it warned viewers that reports from Baghdad were subject to censorship by Saddam Hussein.
In this environment, newspeak from Cuba has posed as news coverage. Mr. Castro becomes the spokesman for parental rights and patriotism-a harmless, cardboard dictator. The Cuban-American exile community in Miami, on the other hand, is increasingly portrayed as the NRA of minority-group activists. The Clinton administration-particularly Attorney General Janet Reno-is the besieged Goliath trying to get just a little understanding from the Cuban David living in Little Havana. Newsday columnist James Pinkerton acknowledged, "Even by mainstream media standards, reporting on this story has lopped to the left."
The slant became most apparent when ABC played up Diane Sawyer's exclusive interview with Elián, but downplayed its decision not to air the boy's remarks about wanting to remain in the United States. "We're not trying to take a position in a highly charged political atmosphere," was ABC News president David Westin's explanation for the editing.
Meanwhile, ABC anchorman Peter Jennings began one report: "Once again, the government has failed to get the kind of cooperation from the relatives that might allow the case of this young boy to end in a civilized manner that is best for him."
Other major news outlets have been quick to carry commentary favoring Elián's return to Cuba, but without context. The New York Times devoted three-quarters of a page March 29 to an op-ed by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature complained that "the real shipwreck of Elián did not take place on the high seas, but when he set foot on American soil." He accused Miami relatives of harming Elián's mental health. At story's end, an identification note mentioned the Nobel Prize of Mr. Marquez, but not his close friendship with Fidel Castro. The Colombian-born novelist travels frequently to Cuba; in March alone, he showed up in Havana twice. He attended a cigar festival with Mr. Castro and, one week later, dined with the Cuban dictator along with New York-based playwright Arthur Miller and author William Styron. On both occasions, the Gonzalez case was a topic of conversation.
Meanwhile, Miami's Cuban-American community has not come off so well. Pundits have said the Cubans-who make up just slightly more than 3 percent of foreign-born U.S. residents-have inordinate sway over what happens to Elián. The Cuban-Americans are charged with politicizing the case by demonstrating against Elián's return in the streets of Miami. References to the city as a banana republic have resurfaced.
"Are we going to be governed in this country by law or by mob?" opined Anthony Lewis in an April 1 New York Times column. Mr. Lewis compared the prospects for Elián-induced street violence in Miami to 1957 riots over desegregation in Little Rock. In his vision he saw "howling mobs confronting federal marshals as they carried out the law" and joined Ms. Reno in appealing to the Cuban-American community on the basis of their love for the "rule of law." The presumption is that rule of law adherents could advocate only for Elián's return to his father.
Those accusations are playing to a community weary of the story but, if anything, more sympathetic to the relatives. "As time has gone on, more people believe it would be traumatic for him to be separated from this family," says Donato Dalrymple, the fisherman who, along with his cousin, rescued Elián on Thanksgiving Day. Mr. Dalrymple remembers standing in the hospital while doctors attended Elián that day and family members spoke by phone with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez.
"I thought then that the father would immediately come," he told WORLD. The behavior of Mr. Gonzalez, first refusing to travel to the United States, then demanding that Elián be returned to him in Cuba, finally arriving April 6 in a state-sponsored maneuver, caused more Miami residents to question whether Mr. Gonzalez should be trusted. "I don't think anybody would stop him in Miami if he had just showed up to claim the boy, but his motives now are very questionable," Mr. Dalrymple said. He reflected the frustration of Cubans and non-Cubans who oppose Elián's return to Cuba, saying, "I am a law-abiding citizen, but I will fight for the boy to see his day in court." Last week, bowing to that view, the Florida State House of Representatives passed a resolution urging the Justice Department to hear Elián's petition for asylum.
For Cuban-Americans, this battle is one more in a series with the Clinton administration. Officials in Washington have refused to declassify documents relating to the 1996 shoot-down of two Cuban-American rescue planes, in which four people were killed. Cuban jet fighters targeted the private aircraft on routine search for rafters fleeing Cuba. Although an international air safety commission ruled that the aircraft were in international airspace and wrongfully shot down, no redress has been forthcoming from the Castro regime. Nor has the Cuban government indemnified survivors and relatives of a tugboat sinking that took place in 1994, killing 41, including women and children. Cuban activists cite those cases to show Mr. Castro's malevolent behavior. They also blame the Clinton administration for failing to confront Mr. Castro about these incidents, which involved Cuban-Americans who were U.S. citizens.
Despite intense attention to custody negotiations for Elián and the arrival of his father, the primary legal issue is whether Ms. Reno should grant Elián an asylum hearing. The attorney general in January returned a hearing application submitted by his legal guardian, Lazaro Gonzalez, and a federal judge upheld that decision on March 21. The case is on appeal with the 11th U.S. circuit and is scheduled to be heard in Atlanta next month.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service, which operates within the Justice Department, sidestepped the court proceedings by resurrecting the custody issue last month. The agency announced a deadline for Lazaro Gonzalez to relinquish custody, even before his case had run the length of the appeals process, which could-by law-include the Supreme Court. That prompted the move from Mr. Castro to say he would allow the boy's father to travel to the United States.
INS actions on the case, including persistent reports that the agency made a deal with Fidel Castro last December, have been poorly investigated. Carlos Alberto Montaner, a Cuban novelist in Madrid, asserted that an unnamed Spanish diplomat with close ties to Havana confirmed that Mr. Castro accepted the return of six Cuban inmates from Louisiana, after they held prison guards hostage in December. "Mr. Castro viewed his cooperation as a quid pro quo facilitating the resolution of the crisis in exchange for Elián's triumphant return to the island," wrote Mr. Montaner in The Wall Street Journal.
Elián's return to Cuba looked closer than ever last week. The arrival of his father in the United States cleared the way for a reunion and transfer of custody from Lazaro Gonzalez, Elián's great-uncle, to his father. The transfer would be another controversial move for Ms. Reno, who has made custody pronouncements throughout the case apart from the normal legal guidelines: the ruling of a state family court on the child's best interest, and an examination of the boy by child psychologists and other experts. Immigration officials conducted interviews with the boy's father but have made no examination or interview of Elián. The attorney general's "relatively informal fact-finding process," according to former INS lawyer Joseph Rees, "underestimates both the power the Cuban government exercises over Elián's father and the extent to which it will run Elián's own life if he returns to Cuba."
Mr. Rees is former general counsel for the INS and now serves as staff director for the House Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights. Writing in The Wall Street Journal on April 3, he stressed the importance of the custody issue in determining who may best represent Elián in further immigration proceedings.
Ms. Reno is not bound by law to refuse the request for asylum, which would grant Elián legal residency in the United States, as has been popularly portrayed in the press. She has the discretion to parole immigrants into the United States for humanitarian reasons. She would likely do so, argues Mr. Rees, if Elián were a child from Nazi Germany or a girl whose guardian feared ritual genital mutilation if she were returned to Africa. Ms. Reno's decisions in the case, according to Mr. Rees, "reflect an assumption that Fidel Castro is fundamentally unlike a Nazi or a mutilator."
He continued, "Indeed, an important subtext in much commentary on Elián's case has been the image of Mr. Castro as an avuncular if somewhat rascally dictator who has been unfairly vilified by fanatics in Miami." In the media age, image is nine-tenths of the law-which is why Mr. Castro's good press has so much to do with the future of a shipwrecked boy.