2001Breaking News Reporting

Commentary: Feds declined to exhaust all options

Liz Balmaseda
April 23, 2000

previous | index

"When all efforts failed."

That was the official disclaimer.

That was President Clinton's shrug for the violent pre-dawn raid and ransack of the house where Elian Gonzalez has lived with his Miami relatives since his November rescue at sea.

"The law has been upheld," Clinton said, adding he believed removing the child by force was the right thing to do.

If the president believes the thug display by armed federal agents against a horrified 6-year-old child constitutes the right thing to do, then we must ask him this:

What country do you govern, sir? Is it the United States or is it Cuba?

In pursuit of Elian, submachine gun-pointing border agents stormed the Gonzalez family house, smashing through a door, blasting pepper spray, even wrecking the child's bed frame.

The peaceful, orderly transfer Attorney General Janet Reno had promised the American people played like a home invasion, with death threats hurled and guns pointed to heads.

"Give me the f---ing boy or I'll shoot," an agent thundered at Elian's relatives, who pleaded with the armed officials not to harm the child.

Let's freeze this frame, as did Associated Press photographer Alan Diaz, who captured the image that exposes the morning's brutality: a federal agent pointing a gun toward a terrified Elian as the boy cried in the arms of one of his sea rescuers, Donato Dalrymple.

Let's freeze this image and examine who is holding the gun near the child's chest. It is not Elian's cousin, Marisleysis Gonzalez, or any of his other relatives. It is not any of the exiles who have rallied and prayed outside his home.

Later in the day there would be references to protests in the streets of Miami. But the most violent images were the ones reserved for Elian's eyes, as he screamed "I don't want to go!"

What has Janet Reno done in the name of reunification? What was the point in her visiting Miami to work out an acceptable transfer?

Are we to believe that ripping the boy out of his house at 5 a.m. was the only course of action, or even that "all efforts failed?"

Family attorneys and community leaders worked deep into the night, brokering an agreement to take Elian, in the company of his closest relatives, to a neutral place where he could reunite with his father. They believed they had reached an accord with Reno, when, after a tense lull, the agents stormed the house.

"What is this, Berkeley 1968?" demanded Pedro Freyre, the chairman of the anti-defamation group Facts About Cuban Exiles and one of the community figures involved in working out the futile accord.

"The administration never had any intention of reuniting this family. Never," concluded the Cuban American National Foundation's Jorge Mas Santos, who arrived at the house minutes after Elian was snatched. As he surveyed the room where Elian slept, he was struck by a poignant detail: The boy had hung his Easter clothes, a tiny guayabera and shorts, on the bedpost.

Indeed it seems as if the administration had no intention of exhausting "all efforts."

From the beginning, Reno and the Immigration and Naturalization Service dismissed the most logical scenario -- to compel Juan Miguel Gonzalez to ditch his Cuban government shadows and travel to the side of his son. Instead, the burden of travel was placed upon Elian, the boy who lost his mother during the voyage from Cuba.

Even when it became clear that the father was a virtual ward of the Castro government, the INS did not budge. It took a 16-page ruling from a federal appeals court in Atlanta on Wednesday to ensure that Elian, the refugee boy rescued on Thanksgiving Day, would not be delivered to the hands of the Cuban government without his day in court.

As Miami took in the shock of Saturday's raid, we contemplated the first photographs of the boy and his father. The pictures depict a smiling Elian. We can only hope they reflect the love he feels for his father and his baby brother.

Back in Miami, the community that weeps for Elian should be comforted by that smile. Despite every effort made to portray us as rabid family-wreckers, many of us still hold firm what we have always wished for Elian -- that he may be surrounded by the love of his family, not the maneuvers of any government.

Juan Miguel Gonzalez stayed away and his son paid for it on Saturday morning.

We can only pray that their reunification will erase the trauma of the brutal force Elian witnessed as he was dragged from his home, as if he were a fugitive.