Fine Young Cannibals

The reporters providing us coverage of Elian Gonzalez seem to recognize they're taking part in a shark feed. And they just keep chomping.

The reporters flocked to him as he handed a photocopy of a letter dated that same day to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, inviting the grandmothers to dine at the Gonzalez house at 6:00 p.m.

"[Gutierrez] comes out and throws us these little nuggets, and we all dive to gobble them up like little puppies going after treats," observes one photographer who fears Gutierrez's ability to shut down access on a hot story enough to ask to remain unnamed. Earlier in the day the publicist had spoken to Spanish-language radio personalities and community leaders, urging them to tell people to behave during the grandmothers' visit.

Now Gutierrez looked around at a handful of fellow Cubans on the street before the house and tried to get them to disperse. "We can't fall into that trap," he told one elderly gentleman. The man did not agree. "We should be here and receive [the grandmothers] with applause," he protested.

courtesy Louis Wolfson II Media History Center
courtesy Louis Wolfson II Media History Center

Gutierrez shrugged, then spied Angel Valdez and her sign. Valdez's statement was blunt, printed in large black letters on fluorescent-orange posterboard. "Channel 10 get the f...out of here. A Free Cuban. Liars." Valdez was still angry about tape the local Channel 10 (WPLG-TV) television station aired of young Elian talking. Eleven days earlier the station had translated the boy's words as "I want you to take me back to Cuba." Angry exiles who understood the words to mean the opposite had demonstrated in front of the station.

"They are liars," says Valdez, a petite chain-smoking women with a shock of white hair. "They shouldn't be here." Valdez herself is a frequent visitor to the street outside the home.

A core group of about fifteen Cuban exiles have regularly shown up at the house. One of the leaders of the group, called the Movement for the Dignity of the Cuban People, is Jorge Gonzalez (no relation to Elian's relatives). Gonzalez, with a miniature bullhorn in hand, has tried to direct the crowd and relay instructions from Armando Gutierrez and others. Gonzalez led a short-lived hunger strike in early January to protest efforts to send the boy back to Cuba. The four-day action was marred by violence when the hunger strikers clashed with someone who disagreed with their position, landing the critic in the hospital.

(The threat of violence is real. It was for Phillip, a lawyer on Miami Beach who asked that his last name not be used out of concern for his family's safety. Phillip showed up at the scene of the actual meeting with the grandmothers, which took place two days later, on January 26. Outside the gated house of Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, who hosted the meeting, huddled more than 80 demonstrators, including Gonzalez and members of his movement, and more than 100 media people. The lawyer took the risky action of hoisting a sign that read: "Stop the deaths at sea. Repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act." Within minutes of raising the sign, Phillip was surrounded by angry demonstrators. The crowd began to punch and kick him before he was whisked away by Miami Beach police. As the cops escorted the lawyer from the scene, an elderly woman, who held a sign that read, "Three Kings, Three Children, Moses, Jesus, and Elian," kept repeating to a reporter: "Good news for you. Good news for you.")

In her coverage as a newscaster and radio commentator, Bernadette Pardo has made a point of never declaring her position on whether Elian should stay or return to Cuba. This traditional journalistic objectivity has made many in the Cuban exile community assume she supports the boy's return to the island. As a result Pardo says she has received abusive and threatening mail. "To keep above the emotions sometimes is very hard when you are getting hate mail," she says.

The lingering hostility toward Channel 10 prompted one of the channel's cameramen, when spotted by a crowd of demonstrators on Monday, to insist loudly in English with a bit of a grin: "I don't speak Spanish. I have no idea what he said."

But the pressure on Channel 10 journalists is far from humorous. Political reporter Michael Putney says he and his family were attacked on Spanish-language radio. "I have been extremely vocal to my detriment," he says. According to Putney, on stations Radio Mambí (WAQI-AM 710) and La Poderosa (WWFE-AM 670) he was denounced as a Castro agent. In addition his wife was accused of being the daughter of Magda Montiel Davis, infamous in exile circles for kissing Fidel Castro on the cheek. Putney's daughter was said to be married to vocal Cuban embargo opponent Francisco Aruca's son.

"I am a public figure of sorts and I expect a certain degree of that, but I detest it when they reach down and start saying things about my wife and daughter," declares Putney. The news veteran suspected Gutierrez's fingerprints on the accusations, but the spin-doctor denied involvement.

Despite the risks the pressure to quote little Elian is strong. After all some believe the six-year-old boy is godlike, rescued by dolphins to lead the faithful from exile. It is these people, not the media, who worry one of the Gonzalez neighbors. "It's driving me nuts," says Mary Rodriguez, who lives opposite the house and has kindly let reporters use her patio without charge. "It's not a press problem. It's more the people, the mob."

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