The government raid was swift, deft, and solicitous as regards the boy.
—lead editorial, The Washington Post, April 23
My God, America, what did you do to this boy?
—Donato Dalrymple, one of the fishermen who rescued Elián González from the sea, Fox News, April 22
At five in the morning on April 22, as INS agents swiftly conducted their taking of Elian Gonzalez, an agitated old man outside the house had a heart attack. A woman nearby tried to call 911, but as she said on Fox news the next day, the phone lines had been cut. This indeed was a “deft” operation.
The coverage in all the media has been extensive, disjointed, and—with regard to analysis of the motives of the clinton administration—incomplete.
To begin, this is the first time in American history that a federal SWAT team has been used to raid a private home in a custody case. Janet Reno has emphasized that there were only eight INS agents in the house, but as the April 23 Washington Post reported, more than 130 federal agents were involved. The eight broke down the doors and smashed Elian’s bed while gassing lawyers for the boy and his family, threatening his cousin Marisleysis, and kicking an NBC cameraman in the stomach.
As for the comment by the Washington Post editorial writer that “the raid was solicitous as regards the boy,” just look at Alan Diaz’s AP photograph that has gone round the world. Look at the boy’s face. Look at his eyes.
Janet Reno has taken the heat for the raid, but it was approved by the president, who characteristically slipped away from the full glare of responsibility by expansively crediting Reno.
Only 19 days after that Saturday raid, there will be a hearing—and oral arguments—before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta on whether the Immigration and Naturalization Service can be mandated to consider the request for Elián’s asylum in the United States filed by his great-uncle Lazaro González.
Did Reno and Clinton rush to take the boy to prevent a consideration for asylum by making sure that the father, Juan Miguel, actually had custody? (Juan Miguel signed custody papers from the Justice Department the day after the raid.) Does the Justice Department want to moot the case so that Elián can be sent back to Cuba?
That may explain why it was so crucial to break down the door of the home where, up to moments before the raid began, negotiations were still continuing on an open phone between lawyers for Elián’s relatives and Janet Reno.
According to the April 23 Miami Herald, the mediator, Aaron Podhurst—who has had a 30-year friendship with Reno—says the negotiations were reaching a constructive point when, unknown to him, the order was given to smash down the door. He says he was “devastated” by this breach of trust.
It was a setup.
Why the full riot gear, the semiautomatic weapons with laser sights? Well, Janet Reno explained during her news conference that Saturday, there were “reports of arms in the house.” Echoes of Waco?
The next day, Florida senator Bob Graham, a Democrat and former governor of the state, said flatly on ABC-TV that local law enforcement had the resources to know whether there were arms in the home, and there weren’t any. Will the Justice Department now come up with proof that the family had guns there?
As for the taking of the boy by a Border Patrol agent looking like Darth Vader, Reno and her clone—deputy attorney general Eric Holder—insist that the submachine gun was not pointed at the boy but to the side and, gee, the agent’s hand wasn’t on the trigger.
Look again at the face of the boy in that AP photograph. Do you think he was able to discern that this nightmare apparition did not have his finger on the trigger?
So why the rush? On April 22 on Fox News—which did the best reporting from the field and had the most diverse group of commmentators—Richard Nuccio gave the answer for the turn of events soon after Elián was rescued at sea. Nuccio was the former point man on Cuban affairs at the State Department, and an adviser to Clinton on dealing with Castro.
Nuccio noted that at first, after the boy’s rescue, the INS wanted Elián’s case to go to a state family court in Florida. But the State Department quickly reversed that decision and told the INS to keep jurisdiction over the boy.
Why? Ricardo Alarcon, head of the Cuban National Assembly, who is close to Castro, had said in Havana that if Elián were not returned, there would again be massive boat lifts from Cuba to the United States—on the order of the 125,266 Cubans that the Mariel boat lift brought here in 1980.
Some of these Mariel immigrants were vicious criminals, and a number rioted in an Arkansas detention center, contributing to Clinton’s only defeat in an election for governor. Clinton hasn’t forgotten that, and is mindful that a new wave of boat lifts this summer could mar his hopes of keeping his “legacy” alive by transferring the presidency to Gore and having the Democrats take Congress in November. And there is currently a strong anti-immigration feeling in the United States.
Meanwhile, two days before the taking of Elián, Gregory Craig—a lawyer for Clinton during the impeachment process who now represents Elián’s father and has gone to Havana to consult with Castro—sent a letter to all the network news chiefs. Craig implored them not to broadcast any pictures of the raid because Elián’s father “does not consent to this kind of exploitative television coverage of his child.”
He was asking for censorship, a Clintonesque ploy to facilitate the cover-up of the SWAT team raid.
Keep in mind—as the great majority of Americans, including editorial writers, show approval of the raid—that the INS agents were not breaking in the door of a drug dealer or a serial murderer. They dragged out a six-year-old boy. And remember that Reno’s friend, Aaron Podhurst, who was mediating the negotiations until moments before the agents rushed in, told The Wall Street Journal (April 24): “I’m gravely disappointed that the government had to use force when I think we could have worked things out.”
And on April 19, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals said Elián’s great-uncle and the boy himself had “presented a substantial case on the merits.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 25, 2000