Sometime this week, it is likely that 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez
will be reunited with his father, Juan Miguel. When the dust settles
around this surreal telenovela that has run five months, there will be
indisputable winners and losers.
At the top of the winners list is Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Indeed,
the maximum leader would have been hard-pressed to conjure up a scenario
more satisfying, one that garners him international support, along with
that of 70% of polled Americans, including non-Cuban Latinos and
conservative Republicans, and shifts attention from far more nettlesome
human-rights, dissident and economic problems within Cuba. Not even the
most devious minds in the Cuban ministry of the interior could have
foreseen their good fortune: A Miami exile extended family refuses to
return the child of a devoted dad only to have it revealed that they and
their advisors have multiple ethical transgressions as well as a record
of arrests for drunk driving and felony assaults.
To his critics' horror, Castro took to lecturing the world from the
moral high ground. Early on, he grasped that no matter what the outcome,
the situation was win-win for him and a black eye for hard-line Miami
On the other hand, Miami and the right-wing exiles who dominate its
political scene have been demonized on virtually every editorial page and
labeled, as David Rieff wrote, "an out-of-control banana republic within
the American body politic." All of which will dampen the economic
prospects of a city that has already lost its chance to host the Latin
Grammy Awards, among other events, because of its strident anti-Cuba
The other big loser could well be Democratic presidential candidate Al
Gore, who set a record for pandering and equivocating on what's in the
best interest of a child. Some in the Clinton administration would add
backstabbing, arguing that the vice president abandoned Atty. Gen. Janet
Reno and Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris
Meissner in their darkest hour in the negotiations, when Miami-Dade
County Mayor Alex Penelas vowed not to assist federal authorities in
reuniting Elian with his father.
Undoubtedly, Gore will see and hear about his backpedaling for the
rest of the presidential campaign, probably beside clips of his
Anther loser in the Democratic column is Sen. Robert G. Torricelli,
the pugnacious senator from New Jersey with close ties to exile
hard-liners. Reputed to have coaxed Gore into executing his back flips,
Torricelli could see his political capital, and certainly his political
counsel, nose dive.
Another Democrat, Panelas, previously considered the most likely Cuban
American politician to advance into national office, now stands in the
embers of his larger ambitions. Having led the Miami insurrection, he is
fighting to hold onto his job against opponent Miguel Diaz de la
Portilla. "If an election were held today," Carl Hiassen quipped, "poor
Alex couldn't get elected dog-catcher north of County Line Road."
Evidently, Penelas, like Gore and Torricelli, cannot count. Miami-Dade
is now roughly 40% Cuban, the other 60% being non-Cuban Latinos, blacks
and Anglos--none of whom have been sympathetic to the Miami relatives.
Add on a significant silent faction among Cuban exiles who abhorred the
relatives' tactics, and you have buttered your bread on the wrong side.
Certainly, the Cuban American National Foundation and its president,
Jorge Mas Santos, sit atop the losers heap. They gambled the
house--masterminding and financing the crusade to keep Elian in
Miami--and have lost big, both politically and financially. Now, the road
has been swept clear for other, more moderate groups to speak for Cuban
exiles. The idea that all Cuban exiles think alike has been shattered.
The Miami Gonzalez clan will step up to the podium as both losers and
winners. Certainly, 21-year-old Marisleysis, the self-appointed surrogate
mother of Elian, is a Cinderella winner. Fame and fortune undoubtedly
await her. Once a Madonna wannabe, partial to miniskirts and halter tops,
she is now a demure brunet in tailored suits with a range of Sarah
Bernhardt emotions. When she was not seen hovering over Elian, she was
rushed to the hospital on at least six occasions for "emotional anxiety."
Miami sizzles with talk that she is romantically involved with a member
of the CANF.
No doubt, lucrative book and movie deals will cushion the loss of
Elian for the Miami family. A CBS miniseries is in the works, and the
CANF arranged for its producer and writer to spend time with Marisleysis,
the presumed heroine. One New York literary agent reports that friends of
the family are shopping a book deal on their behalf. Already the fortunes
of Lazaro Gonzalez, Elian's great uncle, have improved. Prior to Elian's
arrival, he was an unemployed car mechanic with a troubled job history.
Now, he is employed at a car dealership owned by a director of the CANF,
according to the Sun-Sentinel, though he has not been seen on the job in
Lazaro's neighbors have made out as well, charging $500 a day to media
outlets camped on their front lawns. Some neighbors are said to have
raked in as much as $1,500 a day during the last four months.
In the child-exploitation sweepstakes, few can compete with ABC
journalist Diane Sawyer, who traded her credibility to "get the get":
interviewing a traumatized 6-year-old. While she spoke of Marisleysis,
Elian's second cousin, with a hushed reverence, Sawyer seemed to impugn
the motives of his father for wanting his kid back. Never during her
three-part interview did she mention that Elian, immediately after his
rescue, gave doctors his father's name, telephone number and street
address for them to contact. Nor did she explore what could have happened
to the boy that he would say he did not want to see his father. Might he
be echoing sentiments of caretakers or the hundreds of anti-Castro
protesters chanting outside his home for months? And what is the level of
denial in a child who insists his mother is still alive?
But it is Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin who will carry off the trophy for
self-inflicted wounds. O'Laughlin offered her 13-bedroom home in the
toniest neighborhood of Miami Beach as a neutral site to facilitate a
meeting between Elian and his Cuban grandmothers, after his relatives
refused to allow him to meet with them alone. Immediately after the
visit, O'Laughlin, a celebrated fund-raiser, became an aggressive
advocate for the Miami relatives. In February, she made a number of
highly charged allegations that appeared in a Miami Herald front-page
story, asserting one grandmother wanted to defect and that the father is
unfit. She said she gleaned these explosive revelations from the
grandmothers in a five-minute conversation without an interpreter,
claiming to be sufficiently fluent in Spanish to understand them.
But Sister Leonor Esnard, the Cuban-born nun who translated for
O'Laughlin during the visit, insisted O'Laughlin does not understand
Spanish, adding, "I have no idea where she gained that information." And
many have attested to the father's care and attention.
Within days, O'Laughlin had to retract her story, admitting she had
never met alone with the grandmothers and was not fluent in Spanish. Yet,
two weeks later, she made the same allegations in a notarized affidavit
on behalf of the Miami Gonzalezes, this time citing "independent sources
including INS officials, American family members and persons present at
But the INS and Justice Department issued a firm denial, saying they
had never provided such information nor was there any basis to her
allegations. This left only the Miami Gonzalezes and their advisors as
her possible sources. The family then made a another attempt to smear
Juan Miguel on Friday, when they sent Elian's therapist to tell the media
that reuniting Elian with his father would cause irretrievable harm.
As a consequence of O'Laughlin, the Catholic Church is also a loser.
Cuban church leaders are lamenting that many gains made by Pope John Paul
II over the last decade were undone in a matter of days by the nun.
The Cuban grandmothers won something of a split decision. While
demonized in Miami for not defecting as prophesied, the grandmothers have
joined the pantheon of the heroic in Cuba. On their return, they were
compared to Mariana Grajales, mother of Cuban revolutionary heroes
Antonio and Jose Maceo.
And Elian's hometown, Cardenas, is also a winner. Not to be outdone by
the Miami make-overs, the Cubans embarked on their own. Elian's home was
repainted, and then his entire block. Even his schoolhouse and desk were
Clearly, the big losers are Miami's exile hard-liners, so desperate to
wreak revenge on Castro that they picked a public-relations turkey. No
one understood, they shrieked. Betrayed by Castro, betrayed by the U.S.
that failed to back them in the Bay of Pigs, even betrayed by the pope,
who visited Cuba, they simply didn't care what anyone else said or
thought. What did others know of their suffering? Losing once again, will
only deepen their sense of betrayal and martyrdom.
And then there is 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez--whose childhood is being
sacrificed for political expediency and celebrity grist for
sensation-addicted Americans. *
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Ann Louise Bardach Is the Author of "Troubled Waters: the Miami-havana Showdown," to Be Published Next Year and Excerpted Next Week in George Magazine.
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times