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For the past three weeks Armando Gutierrez has been a frenetic blur of activity. He carries not one but two cell phones, on which he often juggles multiple conversations, his head bobbing back and forth between portables like a metronome. One minute he's asking a local lawyer to help him set up a trust fund for the young Cuban rafter Elian Gonzalez. "Pro bono," he repeats several times during the conversation so there will be no confusion that he wants the lawyer to donate his services.
The next minute he's talking to state Rep. Carlos Valdes, who is running for the state Senate seat vacated by soon-to-be-imprisoned Alberto Gutman. "I'll be there in twenty minutes," he tells Valdes. "I promise. Yes. I promise." When he hangs up he admits that Valdes, now engaged in a vicious fight with fellow state Rep. Alex Diaz de la Portilla for the Republican nomination, is unhappy with Gutierrez, who is supposed to be running his campaign. "He's pissed," Gutierrez concedes, "but he understands."
And so it goes for Gutierrez, the well-known, often controversial political consultant who inexplicably has emerged as one of the central figures in the international tug of war over the future of little Elian. This past Sunday, for example, it was Gutierrez who shepherded more than two dozen members of the press around Disney World as Elian cavorted in the surreal environment of the Magic Kingdom.
Disney officials initially were intent on barring reporters and camera crews from following the child around the park, but Gutierrez interceded. "I wanted people to see Elian as a young boy playing in Disney World, just like any other kid his age," he explains. "I want people to remember that this is just a little boy."
The following day newspapers around the world quoted Gutierrez, describing him as the spokesman for Elian's American relatives. It was Gutierrez who recounted the story of how Elian expressed fear while on the "It's a Small World" water ride, clutching his uncle's knee and asking if this boat -- like the one aboard which he left Cuba -- would sink as well.
"Tears come out of my eyes when I think about it," Gutierrez says.
Gutierrez's role, however, goes much deeper than tour guide and family spokesman. It was he who recruited attorney Spencer Eig, a former Miami Beach City Commission candidate, to represent the family free of charge. Today the child is represented by at least five lawyers -- Eig, Roger Bernstein, Linda Osberg-Braun, Carmen Morales, and José Garcia-Pedrosa -- a group Gutierrez jokingly refers to as "my dream team."
And it's been Gutierrez who has acted as the gatekeeper for the boy, drumming up support among local politicians and maneuvering behind the scenes. Gutierrez, who came to the United States from Cuba with his mother in 1961 at the age of eleven, rejects the idea that he and others in the exile community are exploiting the child. "Castro is using him as a trophy," Gutierrez counters. "We're not using him as a trophy."
How is this possible? How does a campaign strategist and lobbyist with a reputation for bare-knuckle politics end up being one of the key advisors to Elian's family? "When I saw it on the TV news, I said to myself, 'This kid needs help,'" Gutierrez recalls. So he called them. "They were in despair," he reports. "I said, 'I know how Castro works. You need to get organized. You need to get prepared. This is going to get rough.'"
He told the family he has extensive political contacts because of his work in myriad election campaigns. And he insisted on helping them secure legal assistance. "I told them that in this country, the first thing you do is hire an attorney," he says.
Gutierrez chose Spencer Eig, a native New Yorker and former Immigration and Naturalization Service attorney. The two men had worked together in the past. Gutierrez aided Eig during his failed 1997 bid for a seat on the Miami Beach commission; they have remained close. From Gutierrez's perspective, the fact that Eig wasn't Cuban, and that he was an Orthodox Jew, made him the ideal person to represent Elian. "I thought it was important not to have a Cuban immediately be the lawyer for this kid," Gutierrez says. "We knew this was going to be an international incident, and Fidel would yell about those Cubans in Miami."
In their haste to breathlessly report every detail of Elian's saga (as scripted by Gutierrez), the media have done a poor job deciphering those events in a meaningful way, particularly as they relate to the child's future.
Elian was picked up by local boaters on Thanksgiving Day and turned over to the Coast Guard, which determined that he was severely dehydrated and needed emergency medical attention. This is why the United States' so-called wet feet/dry feet policy became irrelevant. If Elian had been healthy when he was plucked out of the water, he would have been repatriated to Cuba with little delay. Instead he was transported straight to Jackson Memorial Hospital, thereby becoming a ward of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.