Riding the Tiger

Standing in front of what once was Elian Gonzalez's Little Havana home, Jan Weininger, whose father was killed during the Bay of Pigs invasion, railed against Attorney General Janet Reno's decision to send in federal agents a few hours earlier. "I think every Cuban American or anybody who loves democracy needs to resign from the Democratic Party," she barked. Almost on cue the most powerful Cuban-American Democrat in the nation, Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, emerged from the back yard of the house and walked behind Weininger, oblivious to her comments.

Penelas had been to this celebrated locale many times during the five-month impasse, playing to the crowds gathered faithfully behind barricades, proclaiming his solidarity with them in their support of the Gonzalez family, assuring them their cause was just. He would shake their hands and welcome their applause. The rest of Miami may not have comprehended his defiant comments in late March about the president and the attorney general, but here in Little Havana he knew his people understood his words and emotions.

But as he walked through the front yard this past Saturday, the mood had changed and the crowd was no longer so understanding. "Go home, Penelas!" some people began to chant. "Go home, Penelas!" Suddenly the crowd became menacing, pushing closer and closer to the mayor. Their anger growing, they were now screaming: "Go home, Penelas!" A few tried to strike him with their fists. Someone in the crowd threw a woman's shoe at him. The mayor's security detail and staff quickly closed ranks around him and hustled him away.

Ron Silver (above), Katy Sorenson (below), and Maurice Ferre (bottom) are all well positioned to run for county mayor
Ron Silver (above), Katy Sorenson (below), and Maurice Ferre (bottom) are all well positioned to run for county mayor

Miami Mayor Joe Carollo's reception a couple of hours earlier had been no better. He too was driven from the front yard amid cries of betrayal. The crowd demanded to know why he hadn't done more to protect Elian. Why did he let them down?

It's not easy riding the tiger known as el exilio, a lesson Penelas and Carollo are learning the hard way. For both men it is only going to get trickier.

Let's clear up a few things right now. The people most to blame for Saturday's raid are Elian's Miami relatives and their attorneys. They set this debacle in motion. Their refusal to peacefully turn over Elian to his father pushed Reno into the unenviable position of having to take the child by force. It's not at all far-fetched to think this is exactly what the lawyers wanted all along. They knew public opinion was heavily against them; their only hope for turning it around would be a show of force by the federal government. Snatching Elian from the Gonzalez home might evoke sympathy from outraged Americans.

One by one, in the hours after the raid, attorneys Kendall Coffey, José Garcia-Pedrosa, Manny Diaz, and Roger Bernstein, among others, stood before television cameras and said, "Shame on America."

In truth the shame is on each of them.

And with all due respect to Miami attorney Aaron Podhurst, University of Miami president Tad Foote, and business executives Carlos de la Cruz and Carlos Saladrigas, this family was never -- repeat never -- going to give up this child. No matter how close these community leaders thought they were to a negotiated settlement, it was never going to happen. Elian was the Miami family's leverage; holding on to him gave them power. Without Elian they are nothing more than distant relatives caterwauling over the way a father wants to raise his son.

Look at what a difference a few hours made. For months Marisleysis and Lazaro Gonzalez had obstinately and arrogantly attempted to dictate the terms under which a father could be reunited with his son, and because they had Elian, the federal government had no choice but to patiently listen to them. But thirteen hours after agents seized the boy, Marisleysis and Lazaro found themselves sitting in a van outside Andrews Air Force Base, demanding entrance and the right to see Elian. This time, though, their demands carried no weight and they were sent packing.

What sympathy the family may have garnered from the raid on their home is quickly being squandered by their subsequent actions. Marisleysis in particular is becoming a liability. While no one in Miami dares say a bad thing about her, the rest of the nation is getting a pretty good idea that this is an unstable young woman. In her various press conferences following the raid, she has shown herself to be mean spirited, petulant, and out of control. After watching her make disparaging remarks about President Clinton and his family, and salacious innuendo about Reno's sexual orientation, and after pompously trying to present herself as the conscience of America -- well, I'm not even sure she's fit to raise the puppy and bunny left behind at the house. We may need to send in an ASPCA SWAT team for those pets.

While on the subject of SWAT teams, allow me to discuss the raid for a moment. Let's walk through those three minutes. The family claimed for weeks that if federal officials knocked on the front door they would turn over the child. Federal agents knocked three times, but the family refused to come to the door. The agents waited 30 seconds before breaking in.

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