The Great Elián Hoax

Did Demetrio Perez, Jr.'s Libre really produce this book?

Anonymous sources have informed New Times that a new book titled Elián, recently published by educator Demetrio Perez, Jr., may actually be the work of Cuban government agents trying to discredit him. The colorful eight-by-twelve-inch, 116-page "album" is ostensibly a supplement of Libre, Perez's weekly chronicle of Cuban-exile society and commentary. This apparent fact is printed in a column on page six, just above the paper's true address, 904 SW 23 Ave. That also is the location of the nonprofit Lincoln-Martí School, an institution Perez founded in 1968 to educate children of Cuban exiles "academically and socially," as phrased in the organization's literature. The book reportedly is on sale at the Lincoln-Martí School for just $19.99.

On examination evidence of the possible scheme can be found throughout Elián's pages. One clue surfaces in the bilingual introduction on page three, purportedly written by the 55-year-old Perez (his name appears at the bottom). It quotes him thus: "We do not aim to foster controversy or point the finger of blame, nor do we seek to reopen old wounds," the text states. "Instead, we hope to shine a light on the path of liberty for which the mother of this young shipwreck [sic] sacrificed her life."

No upstanding educator would pen this earnest, conciliatory message and then fill page 86 with a photo of a demonstrator in a Devil costume pretending to be former President Clinton. Or plaster page 106 with a photo of a poster that is affixed to a chainlink fence and reads, "Clinton-Gore love communists." Next to it a man leans on the fence with his head buried in his arms, apparently weeping. Page 74 features a populist painting depicting an angelic Elian being welcomed to America by the forces of "good" but outweighed on the scale of life by evil. A heartbreaking sign at the entrance to his new home begs, "Dad: stay here!" and proclaims, "Love Always Wins!" Several dozen other photographs also appear to point the finger of blame and open old wounds.

The book's producers -- whoever they are -- also exploit Alan Diaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the INS commando pointing a 9mm Heckler & Koch submachine-gun with a 30-round clip at Donato Dalrymple (one of Elian's rescuers) while he holds a terrified, crying Elian in front of the closet in which they'd been hiding when "Reno's Raiders" broke in. One would expect a Republican as faithful as Perez to print that shot once, but whoever designed Eliánexploited the disturbing picture three times: as one of eight small photos along the top and bottom of the front cover; as the (slightly larger) sole picture on the back; and on page 109, in all its supersized glory.

It would also be incredible, our sources note, for a distinguished child educator to allow a six-year-old boy, still affected by the loss of his mother and his own near-death at sea, to be used as an anti-Castro puppet while in the classroom. This would be incongruous, they add, with Perez's Lincoln-Martí mission statement. "We strive to develop the whole person, not just an academic robot," it states. "Our program of study is designed to provide students with the liberty to explore and develop their individuality while allowing for freedom of expression in order to engender a desire for a better tomorrow for all of us."

But many pages of Elián leave the reader to conclude the boy was the victim of political exploitation while he was supposed to be getting a good grade-school education. Of the book's 159 photographs, 28 were taken of Elian while inside the Lincoln-Martí compound. The boy is always clad in a uniform of dark pants and either a white oxford shirt or T-shirt emblazoned with the school's crest. The camera captures him eating lunch, sitting at his desk, leaning into a drinking fountain, and standing in a hall before a crouching Perez, who has hold of Elian's right arm and is looking intensely into his eyes. Sources say that only someone as ideologically blinded as a Castro operative would submit a child to such treatment. But Perez?

Twelve photos in Elián feature Perez, a large number for a man entrusted to instill the value of humility among young people. In fact Perez appears in the book more frequently than anyone else, other than Elian himself. In two shots Perez is presenting Lincoln-Martí T-shirts to ABC news personality Diane Sawyer and one of her producers during their whirlwind visit to the school to interview the boy in late March 2000. The presence of these photos suggests the educator misses few opportunities to promote one of his private businesses -- which clearly could not be the case.

Page 77 furthers this image. On it is a full-page photo of a woman in a canary-yellow sweatshirt holding up a copy of Libre. By itself the picture would not necessarily rouse suspicions, our sources reason. But the accompanying text does: "Demonstrators waving copies of Libre." Would a publisher-educator of Perez's stature engage in such blatant promotion of his tabloid in a book devoted to "shining light" on the Elian tragedy?

Also, it is strange that Perez would put out such a publication now, given the fact that he is already mired in negative publicity for allegedly self-serving activities. Gov. Jeb Bush recently removed Perez from his seat on the Miami-Dade School Board after the educator was indicted this past May for defrauding the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, overcharging tenants in a subsidized housing facility he owns and, allegedly, illicitly pocketing tens of thousands of dollars. (Perez has pleaded not guilty.)

Some of the clues that a specious hand is behind the publication of Eliánare more subtle than others. For instance it would be surprising if the founder of a bilingual school who has lived in Miami since the Sixties made the error that appears in the English text accompanying the photo on page 114: "Fidel Castro pins a medal on Juan Miguel Gonzalez to reward the later's [sic] betrayal of his son." The picture shows the Cuban dictator delivering a speech with Elian's father at his side. A recent arrival from Havana's Directorate of Intelligence, whose English skills are still a bit rough, would be more likely to make this gaffe, experts say.

Similarly the narrative states that Donato Dalrymple was a fisherman when he and his cousin Sam Ciancio spotted Elian clinging to an inner tube on Thanksgiving Day, November 22, 1999. By now everyone on this side of the Florida Straits who has studied the facts of the Elian affair knows that Dalrymple was a housecleaner at the time.

In addition there are questions concerning the photographs themselves. Most are captioned as Libre photos. But many are credited as being from Reuters, Agence France Presse, Newsmakers, or other agencies. "He definitely didn't get them from us," says an account executive for New York-based Getty Images, which manages the Reuters photo archive and sells rights to book publishers to reprint the images. The AFP photo department in Washington, D.C., also had no record of allowing its photos to be published in Elián. A Miami-based news photographer says the poor quality of many of the photos indicates they were pirated from the Internet. A distinguished educator and astute publisher, analysts say, would definitely not make that mistake.

One of Demetrio Perez, Jr.'s assistants at Libre insisted the educator-publisher would only respond to written questions. At press time he had not answered them. But a Libreemployee confirmed that several people inside Perez's organization had indeed produced the book.

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