I could hear my voice rising, my tone turning more aggressive, even hostile. I was talking to one of the Miami attorneys for young Elian Gonzalez. She was asserting that no loving father would want his son to grow up in Cuba, and so the pleas from Elian's father for the return of his son should summarily be dismissed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
"I truly believe that any parent would want their child to have a better life than they have," said attorney Linda Osberg-Braun. "And I do not believe that Juan Miguel wants his son to come back to a communist regime. Whatever he is saying [to INS officials] is not his true intention."
But he's the boy's father, I snapped. Why would you find it impossible to believe that a father would want his son to be with him, even if it meant living in Cuba?
"The separation is temporary," she declared. Someday, someday soon we hope, Fidel Castro will be gone, Cuba will be free, and Elian and his father can then be reunited. "What is not resolved," she repeated, "are Juan's true intentions."
I pointed out that INS officials had met privately with the father and were satisfied he was sincere in his desire to have his son returned to him. I also noted that INS representatives who conducted the interview were experienced senior officials trained to look for signs of coercion, a fact Osberg-Braun should appreciate given that she worked at the INS for five years. She served as deputy counsel of the Miami office, the second-highest-ranking attorney overseeing immigration cases in South Florida.
That was one of the reasons I felt such frustration talking with Osberg-Braun. Since entering private practice a year ago, she and Roger Bernstein (another former INS official now representing Elian) have formed one of the most powerful immigration-law practices in the area. I have tremendous respect for her talents and ability. She is no hack attorney, and she took on Elian's case pro bono.
But she still doesn't understand that this isn't about politics and governments. It's about family.
Suppose the INS does return the boy, she ventured. And suppose five years from now the boy and his father arrive in the United States. The father might sue the federal government, claiming the United States hurt his son by returning him to Cuba. The father might claim INS officials should have known he couldn't tell them the truth during his interview because he was speaking under duress. "He could sue the United States for the emotional distress suffered by Elian after the child was returned to Cuba," she speculated.
Is it any surprise so many Americans hate lawyers?
Osberg-Braun pushed on: This nation was now "on notice" that nothing the father said could be trusted and that the United States would be "liable" for anything that might happen to Elian in Cuba.
I asked her to consider a different scenario: She fights as hard as possible to keep Elian in the United States, believing the boy's father secretly desires that. And she succeeds. And five years pass before Cuba is free. And then the boy's father comes to Miami, looks her in the eye, and tells her she was wrong. He did want Elian returned home to Cuba. "And suppose he tells you that you cost him five precious years with his son, years that are lost forever," I proposed tauntingly. "What are you going to say to him then?"
She was rattled by my tone of voice and by my having personalized the issue. "I'm just an advocate," she said plaintively, retreating to a time-honored stance every lawyer invokes at one time or another. By zealously arguing her position, she contended, she was merely playing her role in the legal process that will decide the boy's fate.
"That's a cop-out," I told her. "You don't think you'll bear any moral responsibility if you end up keeping this boy from his father? How can you be so sure you're right? How can you be sure that you're not hurting Elian?"
Osberg-Braun paused for a moment. "It's so hard for me to think a parent would not want the best for his child," she said. It was inconceivable to her that a father in Cuba, faced with the choice of having his boy grow up in the United States or grow up in Cuba, wouldn't choose America. "This is the United States, the best country in the world. It's freedom," she said. Any parent who wouldn't want the best for his child -- well, she'd have "no respect" for him.
And that is the heart of it: If Elian's father is a good man, he will want his son to stay in the United States. But if he is so selfish as to want to raise his son in Cuba, then he's no longer deserving of respect.
Never has a youngster had so many lawyers, so many advisors -- and so few protectors.
People may be divided over the appropriate future for Elian, but everyone must agree that a much better job should have been done to protect him from the media circus. On this score there is plenty of blame to go around, beginning with the family.
I understand that Elian's American relatives were unprepared for the onslaught of media attention, but they should have realized almost immediately that parading him in front the cameras was a bad idea. They were convinced that to keep Elian in the United States, they needed to elicit sympathy from the public. The best way to generate that type of emotional response, they believed, was to let people see what a beautiful child Elian is. The cost of doing that, however, clearly is too high.
Many in the exile community have attempted to rewrite the brief history of this case by suggesting Castro fired the first shot in the public relations war that has raged for more than three weeks. It wasn't Castro. It was U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and members of the Cuban American National Foundation. The foundation plastered the boy's picture on thousands of posters and dressed him in one of its sweatshirts, while Ros-Lehtinen raced through every red light in her district to get to Elian's house in time to be seen on the evening news frolicking with him.
Exiles made the boy a prop.
Castro made him a cause.
And the media blindly went along with all of it.
"The child is a gigantic story," says Channel 7 (WSVN-TV) reporter Mark Londner. "The only negative is that the child has been subjected to the media frenzy that accompanies this sort of thing. I just don't think it was avoidable."
Of course it was avoidable. If the INS had placed Elian with Catholic Charities -- as it does with most children in his situation -- no television crew or photographer would have come within a mile of him. Instead INS officials turned him over to relatives in Miami, a perfectly reasonable decision. Technically, though, the boy remains a ward of the INS, and as such it is the agency's responsibility to see he is not mistreated. In this the INS has failed miserably.
Agency officials should have contacted the family and ordered them to keep the media away from Elian -- who, we shouldn't forget, is still grieving the death of his mother. They also should have prohibited the family from involving the boy in a series of publicity stunts, such as taking him to Disney World and trotting him out to visit a local private school he might attend.
These outings are not only crudely exploitative, they constitute a form of child abuse.
Last week Channel 10's (WPLG-TV) Michael Putney made similar comments, adding that the time had come for the media to leave the boy alone. Following those comments Putney was castigated on Spanish-language radio, where he was branded "Michael Sputnik" and vilified as being anti-Cuban. (Someone should tell that to Putney's Cuban-American wife, Marta.)
Both Londner and Putney talked about the pressure they feel from their bosses not to miss any opportunities for fresh footage of Elian. When he had a birthday party two weeks ago, a couple of the stations came back with film of the celebration, which set off a frenzy of activity as news directors at other stations demanded that their reporters come up with something new as well. And when the Herald printed a story that contained direct quotes from the boy, it was as if a free-for-all had been declared.
"That was the crack in the dam," recalls Londner. "It raised the stakes competitively."
The subsequent intense coverage prompted this comment from one member of the foreign press pursuing the Elian story: "I think if the kid wasn't traumatized before he got off the inner tube, he must be completely traumatized now."
Today we have news crews staking out the boy's house, sometimes all night long. And because everyone knows they are out there, idiotic things can be expected to happen, such as Willy Chirino and school board member Demetrio Perez paying friendly visits and mugging for the cameras. What in God's name does Willy Chirino possibly have to say to this boy? " Qué tal, chico? Here's my latest CD. Enjoy! And oye, you can still get tickets for my New Year's Eve espectáculo at the Hyatt Regency!"
Finally, after last week's debacle at Demetrio Perez's Lincoln-Martí school, in which Elian was nearly crushed amid a throng of reporters, the family has declared they will no longer make the boy available for photo ops and won't provide the media with a daily itinerary.
Putney says Channel 10 has decided it will no longer air stories about Elian that merely follow him around and document his daily activities.
We'll see how long those promises last.
I asked Linda Osberg-Braun whether she thought Elian was being exploited, and if so, whether she, as the boy's attorney, should have stepped in weeks ago and put a stop to it. She evaded the question again and again. Our interview ended with her refusing to acknowledge that any exploitation was taking place.
That's when I realized no one is actually representing this six-year-old child. We have attorneys who say they are representing him, but in fact they are representing his American relatives. No one represents Elian. No one is there to protect him from his lawyers and his relatives and his handlers and the media and the politicians and the publicity-seekers. No one is there to say, "Enough!"
Elian is all alone. As helpless and as isolated today as he was while drifting on an inner tube, waiting for someone to rescue him.
The day after I interviewed Osberg-Braun, we talked again. "You asked me some really hard questions," she began. "You kept asking me, 'What if you're wrong? What if you're wrong?' I've thought a lot about it. That's so difficult. These are such untenable positions. Nobody knows the right answer. Only God knows what's right."
In the end, she said, she believes she is left with just two options: Return the child or fight to keep him here. Fighting to keep him here, she concluded, was the better choice. "You asked me: What if I'm wrong and the father wants the child returned? Well, what if I'm right and the child's father really wants him to stay in the United States? I couldn't live with myself sending a boy back to Cuba like that."
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Osberg-Braun has two young children of her own, a fact she readily admits has affected her approach to the case. "I'm definitely acting in a manner as if Elian were my child, thinking about it from a standpoint of what I would want for Elian," she said. "Hopefully we can find a solution not as lawyers but through the family."
But who actually represents Elian? I asked her. Shouldn't someone care only about him, someone willing to fight the attorneys and the relatives and everyone else in looking out for his welfare.
She replied, "I'll have to think about that."