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Published on Sunday, April 8, 2000 in the Los Angeles Times
Winners, Losers of the Elian Saga
by Ann Louise Bardach
 
SANTA BARBARA - 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 exiles.

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 policies.

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 Buddhist-temple visit.

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 some time.

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 [her] home."

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 refurbished.

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. *

- - -

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

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