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How New Times Covered the Elián González Raid 20 Years Ago

Elián González smiles for TV cameras.
Elián González smiles for TV cameras.

This week marks 20 years since Elián González, the cherubic boy who floated to South Florida on a raft from Cuba, was seized by federal agents at a relative's home in Little Havana and turned over to his father, who took the child back to the island.

In remembrance of the anniversary, author and freelance writer Vanessa Garcia looks back at the improbable series of events in an effort to analyze and explain its lasting impact on Cuban-Americans.

"The name 'Elián González' may ring a bell for some Americans. But for Cuban-Americans and American-born Cubans like me, 'Elián' is more than a memory. It's an indelible moment in our recent history," Garcia writes.

The story remains with former Miami New Times editor in chief Chuck Strouse too. At the time, Strouse had been the paper's managing editor for less than two years. Covering Elián was a baptism by fire and one of the biggest news stories he would cover in his 21-year career at the paper.

"It was insane — the first time in my experience that the whole New Times staff jumped into action," he says today.

The paper went to press Monday night, which meant that by quitting time Friday, that issue's stories had already been written and edited.

After the feds raided the house where little Elián was staying at daybreak Saturday, April 22, 2000, the issue had to be rewritten from scratch.

"Everybody showed up in the office that morning," Strouse remembers. "Everybody reported. Everybody hustled. We told that story in a literary, lyrical way that was so damn Miami."

Below are some of the New Times stories published at the time. Twenty years later, they are a time capsule from that era in Miami history.

Elián Nation

The morning of the raid, Strouse remembers, staff writer Celeste Fraser Delgado turned on WQBA to see what the folks on Spanish-language talk radio were saying. She and fellow staff writers Jose Luis Jiménez, Lissette Corsa, Jacob Bernstein, and Kathy Glasgow spent the weekend at the radio station, also home to Radio Mambí, chronicling the conversations between hosts and guests, most of whom were furious that the boy had been snatched away.

"There is not enough room in Hell for the people who gave the order [to take Elián]," then-Miami Mayor Joe Carollo fumed on the air.

That behind-the-scenes retelling became the centerpiece of that issue's feature story, which, owing to the technology available at the time, made it online as sort of an afterthought. Although the piece lacks a sophisticated web layout, the deadline writing still shines 20 years later.

Staff writer Tristram Korten spent the weekend following Chocolate, a pseudonymous black Cuban teenager, as he joined street protests in Little Havana.

"Although swept up in the sense of outrage, Chocolate doesn't lose sight of the purpose: to express anger, to protest the taking of Elián," Korten wrote.

Chocolate put it this way: "I'm not out to get arrested. I'm trying to help people."

Other New Times editorial staffers fanned out across Miami-Dade County, from staff writers Robert Andrew Powell and Ted B. Kissell to music editor Brett Sokol to staff photographer Steve Satterwhite and art director Dean Sebring.

"I'm ashamed to be an American, I'll tell you that," a customer at a Surfside barbershop told Powell. "This is like Berlin in 1939, the Kristalnacht or whatever you call it. The government storming into a home to steal a six-year-old boy! Well, what can you expect when you have a draft-dodging flag-burner in the White House?"

Columnist Jim DeFede's Take

Another member of the editorial staff in 2000 was columnist Jim DeFede, now an investigative reporter at CBS Miami.

"DeFede was the voice of Miami," Strouse says.

In a column published days before the raid, DeFede blasted Miami's Cuban political class for appropriating Elián's story to score points with voters.

"Evidently Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas and Miami Mayor Joe Carollo have come to believe that holding forth as masters of ceremonies every day at the block party in front of Elián's Little Havana home can be equated to leadership," he wrote. "Carollo and Penelas are accomplishing nothing but getting their mugs on television."

In bringing up the dicey racial and ethnic dynamics of the story, DeFede voiced some criticisms of the sort that Garcia — author of this week's 20th-anniversary piece — might have pointed out as being myopic.

"[W]hat Penelas and Carollo need to do is convince Lazaro to deliver Elián peacefully into the hands of the boy's father," he wrote. "Please stop telling me that Elián's Miami relatives have respect for the law when we all saw and heard Lazaro rebelliously declare that marshals would have to take the child by force."

Yet DeFede's larger point was one of unity. He quoted a Cuban-American friend: "We have to start over, and either we learn to live together or this place goes belly up."

Editor Jim Mullin's Take

Jim Mullin, who was at the helm of Miami New Times as editor in chief from 1989 until Strouse took the reins in late 2005, used his space in print alongside DeFede to explain why he believed many people outside of Miami feared violence from Cuba's exile community.

"You know you've got image problems when the staid New York Times editorializes with evident concern that it appears 'as if South Florida's Cuban Americans believe in mob rule,'" Mullin wrote. "Phrases like 'mob rule' evoke frightening images of violence, which in turn sends Miami's damage-control specialists rushing to the microphones and insisting to the world that the Cuban-exile community is peace-loving, law-abiding, and (with emphasis now) nonviolent."

And so Mullin proceeded to list several acts of violence committed by Cuban exiles.

"If Miami's Cuban exiles confront this shameful past — and resolutely disavow it — they will go a long way toward easing their neighbors' anxiety about a peaceful future," he concluded.

Reader Response

Reaction from New Times' coverage of the saga was mixed.

"The tale of Elián González has generated more comment and created deeper divisions among New Times readers than any subject covered by this newspaper since it began publishing twelve and a half years ago," Mullin wrote, introducing a lengthy installment of letters to the editor published two weeks after the raid.

Some readers thought the paper's reporters regurgitated arguments from the Cuban-American community without subjecting them to scrutiny.

"What was the point of your Elián Nation issue (April 27)? Was it to show how ignorant and blind to the facts is the Cuban community?" one man wrote. "Like the ridiculous arguments spouted by Cubans all over Miami, your stories were one-sided and had nothing to do with the facts of the case."

Others criticized the paper for "bashing" those same Cuban-Americans.

"Is this underlying racism?" a reader asked. "I strongly believe that Cuban Americans have a point for one simple reason: They have lived it. They know what Cuba is like."

Among those readers identifying as Cuban-American, there was hardly a consensus on what was right for little Elián.

"Any sensible human being will have to admit that Elián is now far better off with his father and family in a peaceful setting surrounded by trees and serenity than in the circus atmosphere that prevailed during his months in Little Havana," one Cuban exile wrote.

Another came to the opposite conclusion, expressing support for the boy's relatives in Miami: "I am one of those few patriots who stand with the Cuban American National Foundation and Mr. Lazaro González as they struggle against the power and might of the American government. Determined that Elián shall not be condemned to life in Cuba's gulag, my brothers have truly come to the rescue."

Today, the arguments exemplified by those letters continue to be a topic of debate. Twenty years after Elián was taken from Miami and sent back to Cuba, his name continues to evoke strong emotions and fierce opinions.

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