Shortly after Friday midnight Francisco Santana decided things were well enough under control at the Gonzalez home that he could afford a few hours sleep. "We were talking all day yesterday, and when I left we had worked out a plan. We were also assured by Janet Reno that they were going to respect the Holy Week," the parish priest from Little Havana told WORLD. At 5:15 a.m. Saturday morning Father Santana was shaving, preparing to return to the Gonzalez home, when he got a phone call. "They have taken the child," a distraught Delfin Gonzalez told his priest.
The call from one of Elián Gonzalez's great-uncles, and the three minutes of terror that preceded it, shattered the fragile composure Cuban-American leaders like Father Santana had worked to secure in a seething community. Only a week before, when street protesters vetted predictions that armed government agents would show up in the middle of the night to seize the 6-year-old boy, reporters and other outsiders scoffed at their apocalyptic notions. But when it actually happened on April 22, no one was more surprised than the insiders.
"I cannot believe it. I cannot believe it," Father Santana repeated as he stood outside the Gonzalez home just hours after the raid, a din of sirens echoing the chaos that was filling the streets all around him. "Everyone is so hurt and so confused and so painful. We are in a state of shock." Friends, family members, and community leaders knew all along that Attorney General Janet Reno had the power to make good on a threat to forcibly remove Elián from the home. But few in Miami believed she would choose that option over negotiation, particularly when the negotiations were succeeding.
After the raid, Justice Department officials at first denied that they were near a settlement to the standoff with Miami relatives of Elián that had been running for over a week. But as key mediators-and respected community leaders-came forward to denounce the attorney general's method in planning an assault on the Gonzalez home, her spokesmen conceded: The attorney general was on the phone pretending to negotiate even as federal agents packing submachine guns began beating down the door.
"Everything was negotiable by this family," an angry Tad Foote, president of the University of Miami, told reporters just after Elián was ferried away in a white minivan, "but Ms. Reno has the power of the government. The family was well represented by its lawyers. I am bitterly, bitterly disappointed that we find ourselves here."
Trying to avoid just that sort of scenario, Mr. Foote banded together with three other Miami notables-attorneys and businessmen Aaron Podhurst, Carlos De La Cruz, and Carlos Saladrigas-on April 20 to see if they could mediate efforts to give custody of Elián to his father. Contrary to media reports, Lazaro Gonzalez was not opposed to the reunion. He insisted that it take place in Miami. He repeatedly stated that he would not bar entry to his home by federal officers.
Even as INS spokeswoman Maria Cardonas said, "Lazaro Gonzalez has broken the law," legal experts from around the country disagreed. Mr. Gonzalez would only be breaking the law at the point he refused to allow federal agents into his home to take the boy. An April 19 ruling from the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reinforced that view when the panel refused a Justice Department request that it order Mr. Gonzalez to surrender Elián and instead ordered that the boy remain in the United States.
But Mr. Gonzalez never got the opportunity to obey because federal law enforcement never knocked.
Mr. Foote and his team believed the two sides were not as far apart as it appeared. They proposed reunification in a "safe house complex," with family members working with child psychologists and psychiatrists to resolve their custody dispute. By Friday afternoon attorneys for Lazaro had composed a written proposal along those lines, and forwarded it to the attorney general via the mediators.
Team members adopted clearly defined roles: Mr. Podhurst, a friend of Ms. Reno for more than 30 years, set up an open telephone line with her office in Washington to make the proposal work. Messrs. De La Cruz and Saladrigas, well-known civic leaders with Little Havana ties, were dispatched to cement support from Miami family members as well as the Cuban-American political leadership for "voluntary family reunification," according to Mr. Podhurst. By Friday evening, he said, their efforts had secured "a significant breakthrough" in the standoff between the Justice Department and the Miami relatives. Drafts of a final agreement were circulated among the Gonzalez lawyers in Miami and Ms. Reno and her staff in Washington in the early morning hours Saturday.
Then, at 3 a.m., another deadline from Washington: Ms. Reno told Mr. Podhurst he had until 4 a.m. to get the Gonzalez family to agree to a meeting at a location outside Florida, which she knew had been the major objection of Lazaro Gonzalez all along.
According to published accounts, the new hurdle actually came from Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Elián's father, and his attorney, Greg Craig. The father apparently decided once again that he would not travel to Florida. It was a significant choice because, with the option of force plainly on the attorney general's desk, Mr. Gonzalez revealed how far he would go in order to prevail. If Justice Department rhetoric used to justify the armed assault were true-that the Miami family had weapons and Little Havana was on the verge of violence-he was willing to put his son at the center of that kind of confrontation.
In Miami, fevered negotiations continued past that deadline, with Mr. Podhurst on the phone from his Miami Lakes home with both the attorney general and family lawyer Manny Diaz, who was in the living room of Lazaro Gonzalez's Little Havana home. Mr. Gonzalez had actually fallen asleep during that time, and his attorneys had hesitated to awaken him for further negotiations until just before 5 a.m. Soon after, Mr. Diaz yelled into the phone, "Oh my God, Aaron, it's the marshals," and the infamous raid had begun.
Employing the tactics of surprise, intimidation, and darkness kept normally for drug raids and hostage rescues, eight federal agents stormed the house and snatched Elián from the arms that first rescued him from the sea, those of fisherman Donato Dalrymple.
From his home Mr. Podhurst said the phone line to Little Havana went dead just as he saw the raid unfold on his TV screen. The attorney general remained on the phone, though neither friendship nor the Fourth Amendment, in the final hour, kept her from the prearranged raid. Court records later showed that the Justice Department had requested a search warrant for Elián as an "undocumented immigrant" on April 21, as the negotiations were underway. When a local magistrate issued it, the record was sealed at the Justice Department's request.
"I think our government made a mistake, because we had on our hands a peaceful turnover," said Mr. Podhurst. "With very little more time, we could have been celebrating today how lucky we are to live in a democracy, having demonstrated how peaceful negotiation is the cornerstone of a free society."
Jeanne O'Laughlin, another Reno friend who was also called on as a mediator in the final hours and hosted a meeting between the attorney general and Miami relatives just 10 days prior to the raid, said, "I am heartbroken and devastated. I was shocked that a peaceful transfer, which according to all reports appeared so close, failed to materialize." She called the raid a "travesty of justice."
Fallout from the raid will wrench Miami for weeks to come. Dozens of arrests and injuries during riots on Saturday melded into a general work stoppage throughout the city April 25. Shops, businesses, some schools, and government services halted, in a show of support for the Gonzalez family by both Cuban Americans and non-Cubans. Eight players for the Florida Marlins, including starting third-baseman Mike Lowell, planned to sit out a home game against the San Francisco Giants. (The Marlins lost that game in extra innings.)
Washington, by comparison, was sedate. It was probably no coincidence that the raid took place over a weekend when Congress was in recess and many lawmakers had returned to their home districts or states, learning belatedly about the use of force in Miami. But Republicans who oppose Ms. Reno in this case have been underwhelming all along-unable to muster votes for a legal remedy granting citizenship or permanent residency to Elián and unwilling to step over public opinion, which has held steady at 50-60 percent in favor of returning Elián to his father and to Cuba.
While leadership in the House proposed to hold yet another set of hearings on abuse of power in the Clinton administration for the raid ordered by Ms. Reno, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (who has resisted pushing legislation on Elián's behalf) summoned the attorney general to Capitol Hill last week for a little wrist slapping.
Republicans appeared hamstrung on a strategy by arguments that, in fact, were not material to the Gonzalez case. As traditional advocates of the so-called Powell Doctrine, the argument went, they should have endorsed the attorney general's use of sufficient force to reunite father and son. That analogy ignores the difference between Saddam Hussein's Republican Guards and American citizens disobeying no law in the privacy of their home. And the family values wing of the party feared that they would sound like Hillary Clinton on children's rights if they advocated a lawful asylum hearing for Elián (never mind ignoring the wishes of Elián's mother).
Among the presidential candidates, reaction to the raid was even more limp. Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush said the raid "defies the values of America" but seemed reconciled to its outcome when he urged the Clinton administration to convince Elián's father to raise his son in the United States. Democratic candidate Al Gore backed away from earlier criticism of the Clinton administration's handling of the case, saying, "The focus now is moving forward and eventually healing."
Important legal and procedural questions remain:
Would federal law enforcers prevent Juan Miguel Gonzalez from leaving the country with his son? The U.S. Court of Appeals has ordered the boy to remain in the United States until his case is heard by the court, scheduled for May 11. But the Immigration and Naturalization Service did not after the raid issue a departure control order, which is necessary for law enforcement to actually carry out the court's ruling.
Given that Elián is a plaintiff against the government in an open case in federal court, was it proper for the government to seize him, and did the seizure effectively deny him proper legal counsel and standing to resolve that case?
If the search warrant to enter the Gonzalez home was obtained under pretext that Elián is an "undocumented immigrant," then was the INS obligated to arrest and deport him, as it would normally?
Overriding even the legal battle was concern among church leaders in Little Havana that Elián Gonzalez had missed perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to celebrate Easter on free soil. Father Santana said he read portions of the Gospels to the family in the late hours of Friday evening but was unable to conclude the traditional Catholic Easter vigil with Elián because of the raid. Many extended Gonzalez family members turned out Sunday evening, however, in what he said was "an incredible spiritual experience." "Our suffering turned into peace and glory," he said, "before the suffering and resurrection of Christ."