In a bold attempt at personal diplomacy, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno flew into her hometown Wednesday to meet with Elian Gonzalez and persuade his Miami relatives to turn over the Cuban child to the custody of his father.
Accompanied by U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner, Reno met with the 6-year-old boy and his great uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, in the Miami Beach home of a Dominican nun who hosted a January meeting of the boy and his two Cuban grandmothers.
Also present was Marisleysis Gonzalez, Lazaro’s 21-year-old daughter, who has acted as a surrogate mother to the boy since he was found floating on an inner tube off Florida 4 1/2 months ago.
With a federal deadline for the transfer looming and patience on all sides wearing thin, Reno--the nation’s top law enforcement officer--arrived with one simple message: Obey the law and put an end to the wrenching custody case that has revived Cold War tensions between the United States and Cuba and stirred exile passions in South Florida.
Reno’s mission reportedly was to urge the Miami relatives to bring Elian to Washington by Friday.
Elian’s father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, arrived in Washington a week ago, expecting to regain custody days ago of the son he has not seen in person since late November, when Elian left the communist island on an ill-fated voyage in which his mother and 10 others drowned. The child has been living at his relatives’ home here ever since.
Should Lazaro Gonzalez fail to agree to give up custody of Elian, the government has made clear, it is prepared to order him to turn over the boy at Opa-Locka Airport near here. He would be flown to an undisclosed location to be reunited with his father.
The only way around that ultimatum, said Maria Cardona, an INS spokeswoman, “would be if we see real movement toward a meeting to turn over the boy voluntarily.”
Juan Miguel Gonzalez, staying at the Bethesda, Md., home of Cuba’s top diplomat in this country, wants his son back without having to meet with his Miami relatives first. Lazaro Gonzalez is his uncle.
“It’s time for the Justice Department to instruct Lazaro Gonzalez to follow the law and do the right thing,” said the father’s Washington lawyer, Gregory B. Craig. “Every day of delay, as we have seen, does enormous damage. It is time for Lazaro to do the right thing. This boy needs to be with his father.”
The Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, former secretary-general of the National Council of Churches, met again with the father on Wednesday.
“He has made many concessions,” she said. “He has tried to be cooperative. Last night was an enormous disappointment for him. Then things changed. Now he wants the court order to go out.”
Reno arrived in Miami minutes before 6 p.m. EDT and was driven to the gated Miami Beach home of Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin, the president of Barry University and a personal friend of Reno’s for at least 20 years.
Demonstrators Wave Flags
Several dozen demonstrators already had assembled. As Reno’s entourage passed by and turned into the driveway of the house, the crowd of Cuban exiles waved flags and anti-Castro signs and shouted their hopes that the boy would not be sent home to Cuba.
On Capitol Hill, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and other GOP lawmakers responded to Juan Miguel Gonzalez’s refusal to accept their invitation to visit Congress for discussions with the GOP leadership.
In a press conference with two Cuban-born House members from Miami, DeLay said the rebuff showed that, even though Elian’s father is on American soil, he still is under the control of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
“I’m just appalled by all of this,” DeLay told reporters.
“I don’t believe that Juan Miguel Gonzalez really wants to return his son to a hopeless place where there is no freedom.”
He charged that Reno and President Clinton “have now joined Fidel Castro’s effort to drive a small boy back” to communism.
The two Cuban American lawmakers, Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), leveled similar charges, both in English- and in Spanish-language assertions aimed at their constituents in Miami.
Diaz-Balart called on the White House to permit Juan Miguel Gonzalez to visit Congress, where he would be protected by “neutral police--the Capitol Hill police--that are not under control of Bill Clinton and Janet Reno.”
Miami’s political leaders have taken pains in recent days to defuse the possibility of violence, threatened earlier by some rabidly anti-Castro exiles if Elian is sent home. And Reno, a Miami native, seemed determined to do all she could to avert any deadline confrontation in which federal agents would be ordered in to seize the child.
Reno was state attorney here in 1980 when her office failed to convict police officers accused of the beating death of a black motorist. In the bloody riot that broke out after that acquittal, 17 people were killed and some of Miami’s inner-city neighborhoods were ablaze for three days.
Tensions have cooled here as many of those keeping vigil outside Lazaro Gonzalez’s Little Havana house have accepted that Elian eventually will be returned to Cuba. Nonetheless, police in the Miami area were preparing.
The Miami-Dade Police Department, which covers the entire county, planned for a full mobilization beginning at 5:30 a.m. today, under the assumption that Elian would be handed over to his father at Opa-Locka Airport in their jurisdiction.
Roads near the airport will be closed. All police leaves, court dates and days off have been canceled for the 3,000-officer force.
In Miami, which includes Little Havana, the Police Department has mobilized a 52-officer field force, trained to deal with civil disturbances. But the special force is out of sight of most Miamians--and will remain that way until it is needed.
“They’re in a low-key mode,” said Police Chief Bill O’Brien. “We don’t want to be accused of provoking an incident.”
In Miami Beach, police were much in evidence in front of the house where Reno met with the Miami family, while two police boats patrolled the Intracoastal Waterway at the rear of the property, which is owned Barry University.
Wednesday’s events began early in a driving rain, when O’Laughlin arrived at the Gonzalez house at the family’s request. The 70-year-old nun drove off with Lazaro and Elian, stopping at Mercy Hospital in Coconut Grove, where they picked up Lazaro’s daughter Marisleysis, who had been hospitalized since Friday suffering from stress and exhaustion.
In fact, the entire family is under pressure. Their modest two-bedroom home remains at the center of a news media circus, boisterous spectators and police.
“I think the stress they are all under--they felt the need for some space,” said O’Laughlin.
Once at the nun’s house, Lazaro Gonzalez was visited throughout the day by several of the many attorneys who have represented the family over the last four months, trying to prevent Elian’s repatriation by filing lawsuits in both state and federal courts. But those legal actions, while still pending, now seem all but moot.
Justice Department spokesman Myron Marlin said that Reno’s goal is “to work out a resolution, trying to meet with the parties concerned to seek a cooperative settlement.” Armando Gutierrez, a spokesman for the Miami relatives, called her trip “a good sign.”
Reno also planned to meet with community leaders in a city where she served as state’s attorney for 15 years but where she has also seen herself recently caricatured on protesters’ signs as a devil with horns.
Before Reno’s arrival, O’Laughlin told reporters that she expected Elian to spend the night. The boy, she said, “is happy right now in the house.”
“We have hopefully a chance to do some good healing in the family,” O’Laughlin said. “It is my hope and prayer that as the child becomes reacquainted with his father, that there will be peace in the family.”
After hosting a visit by Elian’s two Cuban grandmothers in January, O’Laughlin, 70, initially said that she had no opinion about whether the boy should be returned. But the day after the women left, she said she believed that Elian should stay in the United States. When she changed her mind, the Cuban government and Elian’s grandmothers bitterly criticized her handling of the meeting.
Hopes for Peaceful, Prompt Transfer
It was unclear how long Elian would stay at the nun’s house. The government has made clear that, though it hopes for a peaceful transfer, it wants a prompt one as well.
“The best result would be for Juan Miguel and Lazaro to agree on a turnover procedure that makes them both happy and benefits Elian,” Justice Department spokeswoman Carole Florman said.
At Lazaro Gonzalez’s house, protesters were starting to acknowledge that, after 4 1/2 months, Elian may be heading back to Cuba. But the attorney general’s decision to come to Miami gave some a ray of hope.
“Right now she’s not the Cuban Americans’ best friend but that could change between today and tomorrow,” said Rolando Millet, 39.
He held a sign: “America get ready for a miracle.”
Clary reported from Miami and Serrano from Washington. Times staff writers Lisa Getter, Janet Hook and Art Pine contributed to this story from Washington.