By Terrence McCoy
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By Chuck Strouse
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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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.
Members of Elian's family in the United States quickly learned of his arrival and asked for the child to be released into their custody once he was well enough to leave the hospital. At that point INS officials had two choices: They could have sent the child to Boys Town under an agreement the agency has with Catholic Charities to care for unaccompanied children who enter the United States illegally, or they could release him into the care of his relatives.
It would be unfair to criticize INS for allowing the child to go home with family members. Allowing Elian to be with relatives after losing his mother was certainly the humane thing to do. Yet had the child been taken to Boys Town, he would have avoided the glare of publicity that now has made his every movement a news event. And he certainly wouldn't have become a prop to be costumed in shirts bearing the name and logo of the Cuban American National Foundation.
Amid the commotion, though, it's been easy to forget one important fact: The family may be taking care of the boy, but INS retains legal custody. Elian is still a ward of the INS.
When he was released to the family, Elian was granted what is known as a "deferred inspection" by INS officials, and given a formal inspection date of December 23. On that day one of two things will happen: Either the boy will be formally paroled into the United States or his application for parole (filed by the INS as a routine matter) will be withdrawn, and the INS will make arrangements to return him to Cuba. It will all depend on who steps forward.
In keeping with policy, the INS will give preference to the father's wishes, but only if agency officials can speak directly to him. It makes no difference that the father has appeared on Nightline and CNN and has been quoted in hundreds of newspapers saying he wants his son returned. Unless INS representatives can meet with the father, his desires are meaningless. The INS would prefer to interview the father here in the United States, where it can be sure he is not being manipulated by Castro. But INS officials currently in Cuba are prepared to meet with him there as well. The only condition: They must be able to speak with him privately. As New Times was going to press, INS officials were meeting with the father in Cuba.
Elian's father reportedly asked for him to be returned. As a result, on December 23 the boy's petition to be paroled into the United States almost certainly will be withdrawn and INS will move to deport him to Cuba.
When that happens, expect all hell to break loose in Miami.
Before the child is repatriated, however, attorneys for the local family will seek and almost certainly receive some sort of restraining order barring the INS from carrying out the deportation order. In a pre-emptive strike, those attorneys are trying to get the courts involved before such an order is even issued by requesting political asylum for the boy.
Most legal experts agree, though, that if the father exerts his parental rights, there is little likelihood the courts will permanently bar Elian's return to Cuba.
This past Sunday, as Elian climbed off the "It's a Small World" ride, it was obvious he was still feeling a bit uncomfortable about the water-theme attraction. Gutierrez walked over, handed the child a quarter, and urged him to throw it into the water to make a wish. The child tossed in the coin, closed his eyes, and whispered to himself for more than a minute.
What did he wish for, his uncle asked?
"I can't tell you," he replied softly, "because if I tell you then it won't come true."
Did he wish for his mother to still be alive? Did he pray that he could see his father again? What does a child like Elian wish for?
Later in the day he walked past the Splash Mountain flume ride and reportedly said, "I don't want to go on that. When that hits, that goes underwater and I don't want to go underwater." Elian was too small to go on that ride anyway.
Too bad there isn't a height requirement for the political games he's having to endure.
So much has been written and spoken about Elian Gonzalez that the words hardly have meaning anymore. Using my computer I searched for news accounts containing his name during the previous seven days and found 873 individual reports. A friend of mine in Minnesota called to say he was listening to a radio program and all the callers thought Elian should be returned to his father. In fact none of the callers could understand why there was any controversy. The boy's mother is dead, so he should be sent home to live with his father, they reasoned. End of discussion.
Of course, Minneapolis isn't known for its Cuban-exile population.
Here in Miami there is simply an emotional blind spot in the reasoning of Cubans. When Armando Gutierrez tells me it's Castro who is exploiting the child, not his fellow Cuban Americans, I suspect he believes it. But that doesn't necessarily make it true.
"This is a very, very, very sad case," Gutierrez offers. "This kid is in a tough situation."
On that point we agree.