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Fraser: "Rick, I can't imagine the repercussions of something like this...."
Sanchez: "This would be very bad PR."
Outside South Florida the bad PR seems aimed in one direction: Miami. The local manipulation of Elian may be backfiring. Perhaps in a concession to this, recently the family tried to put up a fence to shield the boy from the glare of the cameras. But it might be too little too late for both the boy and the reputation of his handlers. A survey of some European journalists covering the story indicates that the actions of Elian's caretakers here are not well received on the continent.
"I think the hard-line Cubans here seem to reproduce the same propaganda one hears in Cuba," notes French television journalist Victor Robert.
Robert and a cameraman had rushed to the house from the airport on the following Friday, January 28. From the house Gutierrez invited them to accompany him and the uncles to a cancer fundraiser at the Airport Hilton hosted by Radio Mambí station director Armando Perez-Roura. The event also was attended by Mayor Alex Penelas and Jorge Mas Santo, head of the newly minted Jorge Mas Canosa Freedom Foundation. "It was like something out of a Martin Scorsese movie," recalls the Frenchman, taking a break from some last-minute shots outside the house. About fifteen feet away, a few Cubans have playfully embraced Robert's vision of them by selling black T-shirts that read, "I am a member of the Cuban-American mafia."
Robert's story will focus on fear and intimidation in Miami-Dade County, he says. "For me it is a good, hard-working community here, but the people like Gutierrez you have at the top don't give a very good image of this community," he opines.
"It is an enormous manipulation for political purposes," says a reporter for Spanish television. "No one, not the radical exile groups here nor Fidel Castro, cares about the boy. I tell you this only because it is what I am saying in my reports."
A disgusted print journalist was even more scathing in his appraisal: "The whole thing -- the media trips to Disney, the daily parading him in front of cameras, the V for victory signs. Who are they trying to kid? They might be kidding Channel 7 and exile radio stations, but at best they look like clowns and at worst they look like a very nasty bunch."
There are signs that both the media and the Miami relatives have become aware of this. The Miami Gonzalezes recently asked the media to back off, leaving just a pool cameraman. "It got to be a little out of hand," admits Gutierrez. But it is unlikely this will be more than a brief reprieve until journalists start behaving more professionally and remember that Elian is a child first and a symbol second.
One photographer, Bill Cooke, who has been part of the media scene almost since the beginning, remembers a day in early December, camped out by the house waiting for a glimpse of Elian. An ice-cream truck appeared down the street, and Elian and other little children bounded out of the house. The photographers and cameramen rushed to take pictures of the boy. For just a moment Cooke stepped back to appraise the scene, and saw how bizarre it truly was.
"We were salivating, going crazy over a little boy buying ice cream," he recalls.