2001Breaking News Reporting

A torn community reacts

Raid stuns, enthralls fractured public
Fabiola Santiago, Daniel de Vise
and Martin Merzer
April 23, 2000

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Some called it proper and overdue. Some called it brutal and premature. Virtually everyone seemed transfixed by events. Virtually everyone regretted that -- somehow, after all this time and all that talk -- it had come to this.

Aroused by the lightning seizure of Elian Gonzalez and provocative images of the raid, people throughout South Florida -- and much of the nation -- expressed strong and sometimes volatile opinions Saturday.

Often, but not always, the views fractured along ethnic lines, and they revealed simmering resentments.

In the Cuban American community, word of the seizure flashed from home to home as dawn broke over the metropolis. ''Did you hear? Did you hear? They took Elian.'' Many people wept, and as the sky brightened, the mood darkened.

''I feel so frustrated,'' said Octavio Del Rio, 57, of Miami, a former political prisoner in Cuba. ''I saw young men being killed for no reason in Cuban jails. I thought, well, in the U.S., people are respected. Bah.

''The general impression among Cubans here is that we are alone. Our cause is not understood.''

Said Mayra Alvarez, 42: ''I'm disgusted to live in this country right now.''

Many non-Hispanics saw it differently, and they resented criticism of the United States and its leaders.

''I believe that Janet Reno is a hero, that she should be commended for the job that she did,'' said Anna Marie Andriole, a white non-Hispanic woman from Dania Beach. ''It should have been done a lot earlier. I believe the Cuban American people do not act by the U.S. law.''

Charles Abanel, 36, a native of Haiti who lives in North Miami Beach, also praised the action.

''I think the government did the right thing because they kept waiting for the family to cooperate, but they never did,'' he said. ''Without a doubt, the boy should be with his father.''

Not every non-Hispanic agreed.

Lou Musacchio, one of a few non-Hispanics in the crowd outside the Little Havana home of Elian's relatives, distributed white poster boards and black and red markers. He urged demonstrators to write down their feelings.

''I wish they would all read 'Shame,' '' he said. ''My sister is crying in Cleveland. Not all the American people agree with what happened here today.''

Luis Botifoll, a veteran civic leader often called the dean of the Cuban exile community, said he believed the government's approach was dictated by a secret deal it made with Cuban leader Fidel Castro last December after Cuban detainees seized hostages in a Louisiana jail.

''I am convinced that all of this was an agreement to return the child in exchange for the criminals Castro accepted . . .,'' Botifoll said. ''For me, the most serious thing is that this child's well-being was never taken into consideration.''

Reaction to the event extended far across county, state and even national borders.

Thirty miles north of Little Havana, among the trinkets at Fort Lauderdale's Swap Shop, the Elian saga blared from every television and radio.

''I don't think it's over,'' said Tim Gray, a white non-Hispanic resident of Weston. ''There's still a lot of emotion involved in this issue until the community sorts it out.''

Reaction from around the country flowed to The Herald via E-mail. More than 100 arrived by Saturday evening.

''I would bet if Lady Liberty could cry, it certainly would be today,'' wrote Terence Sutherland of Woodlawn, N.Y. ''This is an ugly day in America.''

''Kudos to the President and Attorney General Janet Reno for retrieving Elian and returning him to his father,'' said a note from Adel, Ga. ''A Job Well Done!''

Celebrated Cuban writer Zoe Valdes made her views known from Paris.

''Today, the world has seen how far the repressive and criminal hand of Fidel Castro can reach,'' she said, ''far enough to make the federal police in the United States act like the political police of Castro's Cuba.''

Back in Miami-Dade, some elements of life proceeded normally -- boats criss-crossed the bay and people shopped and went to movies and met for dinner. But Elian and the government raid remained the dominant topics of discussion.

''I think they felt they didn't have the choice, but I think it was wrong because of the guns that scared the little boy,'' Robin Hirsch, 36, a white non-Hispanic from Coral Springs, said as he sought relaxation in South Beach.

And throughout the region, many wondered: Are the fractures too deep to be repaired?

Rene Murai, a lawyer and member of Mesa Redonda, an Hispanic civic group:

''One of the great concerns is that the general public opinion has been so much against the position espoused by Cuban Americans that we wonder how much that will change politics and U.S.-Cuba policy.

''We sometimes kid ourselves in thinking we have such an impact in government things, but we are just one small community.''

Botifoll: ''I do not feel hurt by the United States because one thing is the government and another thing is the people. And Americans are good and noble people. They just don't understand this issue in depth.''

And Vanessa Rogers, an African American resident of Pompano Beach:

''What are they angry about? Angry at what happened? Angry that they weren't there when it did? Angry that this boy is with his father? It's kind of like a saga -- everyone is consuming themselves with this.''

Herald staff writers Anabelle de Gale, Johnny Diaz, Mireidy Fernandez, Diana Marrero and Eunice Ponce contributed to this report.